Gardner hears dogs scrambling up the trees after a squirrel or a neighbor’s cat, he tells himself, eager to be calmed. It’s not Teensy, he thinks. The same thing he’s been telling himself for months. Teensy doesn’t want anything to do with him. Isn’t the sort who craves revenge.
Snow whisks fat heads of wild flowers gone brown with seed while Gardner sits in his slippers, staring down a bottle of gin. Hard muscled and lean, he could pass for a man half his age except for the coarse white beard that he tugs as he thinks of them around a table heaped with casseroles, doing shots, laughing, remember whens. It’s Christmas Eve. They wanted to spend it with their mother. The youngest one calls to tell him the news. Come meet us for drinks afterwards, Misty says, naming a bar—his bar—along the river. And while he’d like nothing more than to pull up a chair beside the three of them, beers and full shot glasses jiggling with golden light, it’s a bad idea. Runs a finger behind the plastic band at his ankle. Have you forgotten already, Gardner wants to ask.
You don’t have to be such a downer, Misty says later that afternoon, the only one who visits, huffing bags of groceries up steps of rotten wood to his back door, never takes off her coat, says she’s cold, just like her mother with her jutting cheekbones, legs and arms overgrown, still as thin as she was in junior high. He tries to feed her. Offers a can of corned beef hash heated in his toaster oven, fries an egg. Whatever he offers, she refuses.
I’m sorry, he had said, when he addressed the courtroom during the trial—and Gardner meant it. Whether or not Teensy or the rest of them heard him was beyond his control.
Gardner made Misty toast with strawberry jam. He put it on a plate and had extended it toward her—or that had been his intention, but now he’s standing here at the counter next to the sink watching the blue plumes of exhaust snake from her car as she backs out his gravel drive. Blacked out again—little spots of forgetfulness. Doctor said they may grow longer or may fade away altogether. Couldn’t be certain—those were the exact words the doctor used while opening and closing his suntanned hands, hands that had never lifted a pitch axe over his head in negative wind-chill, blisters at the mouth of each thumb, painting houses, barns, garage doors in July, heat an enveloping blast. All those years of schooling and this is how he chose to phrase the crumbling of Gardner’s mind.
Might as well be six feet underground.
Thoughts and memories arrive as regular as the yellow finch in the feeder outside his porch and just as quickly catch and stumble, and Gardner falls into black pits, booby traps of his own making.
The snow piles up, covers the base of trees and dresses the branch arms, weeds. Gardner’d like to tell Misty that Teensy’s daughter has forgiven him. Can feel the news wet on the end of his tongue each time he sees her, but knows they’d put him away for good if they knew.
You see: she’s been visiting him.
Luann slips in the front door, nightgown frozen grey planks, her body bony but warm. Never met someone who gave off such heat while her skin remained white, bluish, even in the middle of August. Gardner makes Luann sit on the couch. Covers her legs and shoulders with blankets he’s pulled from his own bed. She shivers. Tells him to stop fussing. I ain’t a baby.
I know that, he says. But her feeble shape, the raw knobs of her knees, feet bare and ashen, he wants to do right by her. Teensy’s daughter. For once Gardner wants to care for something, someone. Missed his kids’ birthdays and school concerts driving a truck out west and back, sunrise over those craggy vistas. He’d been full of himself then—health insurance, pension plan; his wife had seemed so much better with the kids. Her voice softer. More interested in asking them questions and discovering their minds than he had been. Then when his sons got older, after years of petty thefts, a group of men sitting at a long, glossy table decided they needed to be taught a lesson. Both were sent off to the county school an hour away on Route 23. Never were the same after that. Wouldn’t look him in the eye. His wife blamed him. Their marriage just a piece of paper then, already living downtown with one of her girlfriends.
But Teensy’s daughter was different. Luann listened. He took her arms in his hands, traced the veins burrowed just beneath the surface. Those drugs’ll kill you, he said.
You’re always saying that.
It’s not. You did.
And his head gets all spotty and the next thing he knows he is in bed with all his clothes on, window open at his bedside, tiny tornadoes of snow whirling on the sill, her smell on his fingers. Gardner rubs his head with the hand, wishes some of her might seep inside, heal him. Luann and Misty were in the same class in school but he couldn’t remember her.
Daddy, she slept over on weekends! You drove us to the pool during summertime. She gave me a ceramic unicorn for my twelfth birthday.
Still, he didn’t remember her. But Luann was sitting in his cab one night nearly a year ago, truck parked in the unpaved lot outside Katy’s Place. He’d been laid off then and Katy, who’d always been partial to him let him keep a few personal items in a plastic bin behind the bar. He supposed by then he’d seen Luann lurking near the door, grinding up against the juke even when it was silent. But she was as much a part of the bar as the stools and light fixtures, the Budweiser horse silently galloping on a shelf of varnished wood.
He was shocked by how nice his name sounded coming from her mouth. She crossed her legs, skirt too short, too tight, and asked where they were going.
Wherever you want to go, he’d said. And meant it.
I was hoping you’d say that, Luann said as he fitted the key in the ignition, already feeling himself hardening inside his stiff jeans.
You pervert! Teensy had yelled, lurching toward him at the trial. The court-appointed attorney had separated them, unclenched Teensy’s greasy hands from the orange jumpsuit. It wasn’t true. She’d been using for years and everyone in town knew she kept a tent in the ravine beside the river, had been known to lift her skirt for 25 dollars. A few years ago news passed around that boys from the college—fraternity boys—were driving down in a station wagon and parking along the ravine, building fires as tall as the lowest branches on the alders, drinking beer, a line outside the wind-whipped walls of her tent.
But the things they said didn’t bother Gardner. He’d tried to save Luann. And Teensy must have known it. It’d been years since they’d spoken. They both worked in the winder control room at the paper mill after the company decided they were too old to drive the heavy miles. Ate their sandwiches and dug into the same foil bags of chips in the fluorescent-lit lunchroom all beneath a heavy shroud of silence.
When they were kids Teensy was the guy no one wanted to sit next to in class or on the bus. He used to find injured animals in the woods near his home and nurse them back to health in his daddy’s garage. They pushed his books off his desk and spit wads of paper into his hair. Teensy never fought back, never flinched or teared up. Gardner on the other hand excelled at kickball and everyone in his class wanted to tell him a joke, be his friend. It was Teensy’s indifference that bothered Gardner most, like the rest of them didn’t even matter, their taunts unimportant. Even later, when they both worked at the paper mill, it was obvious Teensy didn’t give a damn that the rest of them thought he was a loser, a loner. One odd guy.
Junior year of high school Teensy joined the swim team. Gardner and the rest of them had been doing laps at the Y since they were ten, racing in meets on weekends. Decorating their bedroom walls with ribbons. Then Teensy walked onto the pool deck in his too-long swim trunks, diving into that cool abyss, barely able to keep his face in the water, yet there he was at every practice with his small, light green towel. Gardner had long felt Teensy’s gummy eyes and too-wide head following him in the halls of school, now they followed him on the deck and in the locker rooms and it got to a point where Gardner had had enough.
Quit staring, freak! He once yelled between sets.
Gardner had friends. He went to parties on weekends. Girls liked him. And he was used to getting what he wanted.
Figured it’d be easy enough to scare him. So Gardner told Teensy to join him at the pool over lunch. Said a group of them would be meeting before the conference meet. Hadn’t planned what he was going to do, just knew he wanted to shake up Teensy.
That heavy stainless door shut behind Teensy and he didn’t even ask about the other guys. He just stood there in his cuffed jeans and overeager look on the pool deck as if he knew on some level what Gardner wanted to do to him.
What’s up, chief, Gardner asked with a gentle wave of his hand, then struck quickly: he grabbed Teensy and flipped him over onto his back, stuck his piggish face beneath the water in the deep end. Gardner was so much larger, stronger, and with his hands fastened around Teensy’s neck, fingers digging into the spongy flesh, he realized he wanted more than to make Teensy nervous, force him to quit the team. He wanted to hurt him.
Somehow Teensy slid a leg up, kicked Gardner into the pool, the two of them wrestling underwater. And then Teensy stretched his arms out and pushed off, broke free of Gardner’s grasp and started swimming this crazy beautiful stroke. Gardner wasn’t going to let him get off so easy. He strode after him, Teensy’s scrubbed heels just beyond his grasp.
At the other end of the pool, Teensy pulled himself out in one fluid motion. Gardner’s chest heaved. What the fuck, man? Who are you? he asked from the water, still trying to catch his breath. Where’d you learn to swim like that?
But Teensy just stared at him, maybe the last time his eyes would rest on Gardner’s. And then he walked out in his wet clothes, slipping down the halls of the school; didn’t stop walking until he was back home with his pigeons and baby hawk.
Refused to return to classes. Earned his GED. Steered clear of the rest of them. Found a girl, married her. Started a family and stopped trying to earn Gardner’s interest.
For a while it seemed things might turn out differently.
Then when Luann was a few months old, Teensy’s wife got pregnant and every limb on her swelled up like a balloon. They took her to the hospital in Dyer too late—she lost the baby and didn’t survive the week. The coffin was pink satin and inside it Teensy’s wife held the swaddled baby across her chest, her tiny hands clenched fists.
So it was Teensy and his daughter in the house on the hill. When he took the job with the paper mill and he was on the road Luann would be alone for days at a time, dependent upon Teensy’s elderly mother to look in on her. It wasn’t until high school that Luann started disappearing, showing her face on the dance floor at Katy’s Place.
There are things Gardner wants to tell Misty. He’s started a list. Keeps it in the pocket of his shirt. Sometimes he will misplace it and a few days will go by and during that time things come to mind but when he finds the paper he’s forgotten what he wanted to say.
Misty has a boyfriend he’s never met. He wants to shake his hand, look him face to face. Don’t let him boss you around, that’s the first thing on the paper. If he ain’t nice, you walk away. Simple as that. But truth be told, it isn’t that easy to move on. His own wife should have kicked him to the curb years before she actually did. But you get used to each other and even the bad stuff becomes familiar. Tolerable.
You remind me of someone, Luann said that first time they drove around the back roads in his truck. Drove the whole night all the way to Streatmore until the sky behind the hills turned purple so fast it was like someone switched on a light.
He hoped Luann didn’t say her dad. Didn’t think he could stomach the sound of Teensy’s name while his hand rested on her bare thigh.
He didn’t kiss her that first night even though he wanted to. By the time the sun reflected on the hood of the car, his eyes were growing heavy. He dropped her off outside Katy’s Place. Had a glass of milk at home and stumbled into bed. He woke hours later with a start, something pinning him down. It was her straddling him, one hand gripping his neck.
I lied about my brother. You don’t remind me of anyone. And then she kissed him on the mouth, taste of her like chewed up sale papers, her warmth against his skin. Couldn’t recall the last time he’d been with a woman, grey and white hairs springing from his chin. He was an old man. Figured she was lonely, would take up with someone else as soon as the wind changed directions. Would enjoy her as long as she let him. That was the initial plan.
Seeing her stumble in without a coat or shoes, he started to buy her things. She’d sit on his lap on the couch and he’d slip one of his socks over her foot, slide that foot inside a new gym shoe. She’d stay with him for days—would get sober, but then he’d wake and he’d find the red sweatshirt he’d pulled over her head on the floor or slung over the arm of the couch, and she’d be gone. When she wasn’t there, he felt off-center. He’d see her at Katy’s Place on a binge, eyes half-hooded, makeup smeared, sweet talking any guy who came up to her. He wanted her to look at him, just a few feet away, sucking down one whisky after the other, wanted some sort of recognition for their time together. And it was during these gaps that he started to drink more. Began stocking up at the liquor store, rows of bottles beneath the kitchen sink clinking together to make room for the next. He started thinking. Thought about things that happened long ago—remembered his father taking off his belt, whacking his backside, his mother’s cool hand against his fevered forehead. Had he ever told his kids about the pork chops his mother used to make, vermouth simmering on the bottom of the pan, meat falling off the bone? How he was at a wedding at the VFW the first time he met their mother. She was wearing a yellow dress with a bow beneath her small breasts and he’d asked her to dance, and when he placed his hands around her waist he’d felt a jolt not unlike an electric shock.
But then he’d see one of his sons pumping gas or filling some guy’s tires and they’d exchange a wave, a few pleasantries, and the words that followed eluded him.
It was easier to talk to his daughter. He’d call her up and invite her to meet him for coffee. Once or twice Misty did just that, and during the first twenty minutes or so he’d note the hard edge around her mouth. Knew he was responsible for that anger.
There are so many mistruths passed for fact. He wishes Misty could step inside his mind and see what he has seen: the one time he walked in on Luann slumped over on the toilet, needle still nosing its way in her forearm. He grabbed her chin, shook her awake and the first thing she did was spit a goober smack in the middle of his face, told him he was a piece of shit, started hitting him all over; cut open his lip, blood dribbling onto his shirt. Hands so cold. He put his army jacket over her shoulders, figured if he could warm her, get her to eat something, she’d be okay. But her eyes kept flipping back. Gardner called an ambulance, and then out of fear that strikes only fools, he called Teensy. He cradled Luann on his lap, propped her head up on his shoulder, was holding her that way when Teensy’s waltzed in. What she on? He asked, hands hidden deep in his coat pockets.
He didn’t know. Told Teensy to check the bathroom, said that’s where he’d found her.
Teensy shrugged. Little up and down motion with his shoulders. His daughter drooped across the body of another man and he just stood there.
Ain’t my problem anymore, he said. Rung his hands. I’m done. Said it quietly at first, like he was trying out how it might sound. Done! Hear me? He bent toward her, eyes ringed black, breath sparse and shallow, just a strawful of air slipping between her lips. Anything you touch is tainted. And he spat on the ground and walked out.
Gardner wasn’t clear which of them Teensy spoke to.
Back door heaved shut before the van pulled up, red lights flashing. They laid her flat on the rug like a doll, something disposable; snipped off her shirt in two seconds, the man in the navy cap that skimmed his skull slapped her arm, every vein shot. Put hot packs on Luann’s feet, finally found a way inside her.
What’s your daughter on? They asked.
And he’d winced. Should have told them right then and there it wasn’t like that.
You see, he loved her.
The black spaces are irregular. A few days will go by and Gardner’s mind will work just fine. He’ll put seed in the feeder, mend his pants. Heat a can of soup for lunch. Read some of the previous days’ newspaper. Think about things. Add a few notes to the list. And he’ll think: maybe the doctor was wrong. Maybe I was just tired. I’ve healed myself, he thinks. Feels his mood lighten. Thinks about taking a trip, packing a bag and hoisting it into his truck, laying his eyes on those mountains all over again. Went so far as to pack a cooler, dug his sleeping bag out of the shed in back when the transmitter began to buzz followed by a phone call from his counselor. They were speaking on the phone and he was telling him a story—he didn’t know about what—and the next thing he knew he woke in a cold shower fully dressed.
Luann? Luann? He called, stringing a towel around his waist, teeth chattering, moving from room to room, and looking for her.
She’s dead, Daddy, Misty said when she came in that afternoon to find him dressed in still-wet clothes lounging on the couch. She’s not coming back.
Didn’t even flinch to see him in his damp undershorts grey and stringy. She helped him into dry clothes, patted his arm real gentle. Made him a cup of instant coffee. Heated the cream.
Daddy, she said. Do you remember what happened to Luann? He looked away.
This is important. Think real hard. What do you remember, she asked.
It was the one thing he had been unable to forget.
After the hospitalization, Luann was better. Swore she was done using. Threw out the pencil case she used to hold her drug paraphernalia. She took long baths and he leaned over the side of the tub and lathered her hair, rubbed the spaces between her toes. Sometimes she opened her legs and he got right in the tub with her, pressed his back up against her bare chest, two of them wet and slippery, her hands fastened around his chest.
Summer rushed in. They opened windows and planted a garden out back. Ate salads for dinner. She made a pie with wild berries. Her first. They drove to Welmann’s together and bought groceries. Took walks, held hands. Her face filled in, hair grew out in long, soft waves. Every day she looked younger meanwhile dark caverns blossomed under Gardner’s eyes, skin at his neck bunched like a sweater. He seemed to be aging overnight. Waking with her feet against his was a little bit of Eden, but he couldn’t stop worrying about her. Wanted Luann to be ridiculously happy. Wanted to give her what he’d been unable to provide anyone else.
One morning she said she wanted French toast but they were out of eggs. Said she couldn’t go forward with the day without it, and so she took the keys to his truck, headed down to Welmann’s. Thinking back she was gone longer than necessary. And when she returned she was shaking. Wouldn’t tell him why and frankly, he hadn’t thought much about it. He held her real tight, thought maybe she was coming down with something. When she complained of a headache he told her to take a nap and he spent the rest of the morning in the shed out back where he was making her a birdfeeder, something to tend to.
When she woke her eyes darted everywhere but on his. She headed out the door not long after. Must have pawned the ring he’d given her. Wasn’t even certain she was wearing it that morning.
After everything, it comes down to that band of gold, the sapphire stone set between two diamonds. It should have gone to Misty. It had belonged to his mother and his mother’s mother before that. Maybe his mind had betrayed him that day as well. The moment he’d flipped off the TV and hopped down on one knee, asked for Luann’s hand. She’d nodded and started crying, took him into her outstretched arms.
But he can’t trust his mind any longer. Isn’t certain what comes out of it is tied to reality in any way. He could ask Misty and hear one thing. He could call Teensy and apologize for everything like his counselor and the people from AA encouraged. His grandmother used to tell him if you do good, you get good. So how long, he wonders, will he be paying for his mistakes?
Fall came and with it, Luann returned for shorter and shorter intervals. From then on she was always strung out. Didn’t want him to touch her. Didn’t want to eat. She’d sleep for a day and a half straight and when she woke craved cheap packaged cookies. Cigarettes. He’d never liked to smoke, couldn’t stand the smell of it on his clothes after being at Katy’s Place, but he let her light up while stretched out on his couch, feet propped up on pillows, anything to keep her happy. So thin at that point her shoulders would slip out the neck of her T-shirt.
You think I am the only one for you but there are hundreds of girls just like me.
That’s not true.
It is. Drive the city streets. See them lurking against cold brick, breath a fine-veiled thing. Bare shoulders. They can make you feel good.
That’s not what I like about you. And he motioned toward the bedroom, bed still warm from where he’d lifted himself off of her twenty minutes prior. But he never knew what she saw in him.
Everyone wants to feel invincible. We aren’t that different.
He didn’t like what she’d said. Made him question how many others there had been. One time he’d asked her about the drugs, why she used.
Why not? You the fuzz? And she’d stepped into another room, shut the door and blocked him out.
Truth is the black spots started soon after he’d emptied a drawer for Luann, put his socks and undershirts in the same cramped bin. They usually began with a headache. His own mother had been eating a peanut butter sandwich for lunch, glass of iced tea in front of her when the bubble entered her bloodstream, and one trellised branch of her brain suddenly flashed black.
Like mother, like son.
Gardner’s made his share of mistakes, you see. But he wants to tell Misty that he’s tried to make amends. And that act of contrition, he believes, is as important as anything else. He can’t recall the last thing he said to Luann. So much of that night feels jagged and uneven. He had spent most of the day at Katy’s Place. Had been passing the length of hours there, sitting in his place toward the middle end of the bar, pushing a paper napkin back and forth, just being his usual sullen self, wondering where she’d gone this time, if she had collapsed in some dark alley and was calling for him. Once she’d told him he had saved her, and he couldn’t get those words out of his thick skull, the weight they carried once they hatched in his ears.
He sat there thinking of all the places she might be, was gonna sit there a little more and then go look for her. Finish the quarter of whiskey; maybe have one more, he was thinking, when the door swung open, a tinkle of bells, her giggling decorating the air. There was a meaty co-ed with a crew cut in front of her, two behind. Didn’t stop Gardner from jumping up, grabbing hold of her elbow, trying to steer her back to him.
He’s no expert on the ways of women, Gardner wants to tell Misty, but you can’t profess your love to someone and not expect there to be some consequence. Maybe more than anything else Gardner wants her to really hear him on this one: Don’t toy with someone’s emotions. Not like what Luann did that day.
Something horrible clenched up inside him when he saw Luann there.
Maybe they were all strung out. Who knew how long the group had been together, what they’d been doing. The first two guys barely looked at him, didn’t seem bothered by his putting an arm around Luann’s back, guiding her to his warm stool. Her hand so cold inside his. It was the end of October then and she was wearing flip-flops, just like the ones she’d worn all summer while rocking on his porch.
Let’s go home, Luann. This is no place for you to be.
She wrung her hands out of his grasp and stood up straight. He hadn’t noticed it before but she was just as tall as him when she pushed her shoulders back.
I don’t owe you shit, Brylcreem.
He let her walk away, back to the booth where her friends had covered the table in pitchers of beer and bags of salted nuts. He stood there for some minutes, stunned. Got angry. Thought about hoisting her over his shoulder and carrying her right out of Katy’s Place. But Gardner’s own feebleness stepped in, and he returned to his seat. Ordered a round of drinks for the table, knew she’d like that. Nursed his own drink while his eyes were on them.
They put Katy on the witness stand. Called up all three of the college kids in their plaid ties and fancy suits with their city lawyers. Again and again they asked if Gardner seemed angry with Luann, if they’d exchanged harsh words. The smallest of the three seemed most thoughtful. But they were all liars. Said how when Luann came back to the table his handprint was on the top of her arm, he could remember the white etch slowly filling in, said how they offered to teach him a lesson but Luann had just laughed, brushed the idea away with a few chipped fingernails. When they’d asked Luann who he was, the old dude near the end of the bar, beard white as Santa, she said she never saw him before in her life, but she’d tipped her glass to him when Katy brought over the fresh round of drinks.
Just another stranger buying her a beer.
But he could hold his liquor better than any of them. So he waited them out. Devised a plan. Or plans. Knew if he could get her home and pile every blanket he owned on top of her, warm her up, she would come back.
Now when they talk about that night Luann says it was when she understood love.
Because you wanted me to fight for you, he says.
No baby, just the opposite. I didn’t want any harm to come your way.
But it still did.
Well, that was your own doing. That was the risk you took on, she says, leaning into him, curling her lips around the flap of his earlobe. Wasn’t this worth it? She asks, warm in the fold of his lap.
Two a.m., last call. Katy turning on the high lights, shooing everyone out the door with the end of a dishtowel. There were only two guys left with Luann at that point. Gardner knew if she got into a car with them he’d never see her again.
He followed them out. Watched Luann get in the backseat with the blonde one, waited until he was pulling the door shut then leaned right over him, lifted her out, too drunk to even know what was going on.
Like a baby, he said.
Like a princess, she corrected.
And she immediately warmed to Gardner, kissed his face all over, let him buckle her into his cab, tuck a blanket he kept in back over her legs. Her beery breath. They started the ride home.
It had rained earlier in the week; mud had frozen in places, lumps of ice, fallen branches, every tire rotation like going up a curb. What did they talk about as they drove, everyone in the courtroom wanted to know. It seemed so frivolous now, he had to admit, but then it had felt like three steps forward, like in his presence she was instantly sober. She was telling him how she used to do the hair of all the girls in the high school bathroom before classes began, had a training case she carried with her, filled it with sprays and foams and brushes. She said she thought she could do hair for a living. Knew of a college she could attend part-time, said the tuition wasn’t cheap.
How much is it, he asked, already willing to write her the check there and then. Wanted to keep the conversation going.
But he was angry with her on some level. Wanted to make her ask for what she wanted. Wasn’t the first time he’d given her money, but it would be the first time she asked. He was driving fast, he’d admit that. Trees breezed past, a few final crumpled hands of leaves skirting along the windshield, the river bubbling below a darkly ominous thing. He was asking her what she’d do if she earned her certificate.
I’d open my own shop, and she reached over, lifted a few pieces of his hair, and rubbed them between her fingers. You know, I could do something for you, she was saying, Get this hair to behave real nice.
And then a spot erupted in his mind, a monumental burst, and everything went forever dark.