Mike Dulaney was waist deep under a smashed Buick when his cell phone started ringing. He slid the t-hooks into the tie-down slots and tugged the chains to make sure they’d hold. With two fingers he pulled the phone from his shirt pocket. “Mike speaking.”

“Kimmie still hasn’t called.” It was Lisa again. His wife. “If that girl thinks she can—”

“Hang on, honey. I’m at the scene.” He tossed his cell into the grass and worked himself from under the wreckage. The state police had shut down the southbound lanes of U.S. 23. Northbound was thick with rubberneckers, and a line of flickering headlights wound as far as Mike could see. He could imagine drivers slamming their palms into the steering wheel and cursing their bad luck—stuck between Toledo and Ann Arbor—while right over there, in those two ambulances, lives were taking sharp turns. “What time did she say?”

“She didn’t say. I said. Eleven. And not one minute later.”

He pushed the lever that set the winch into motion, pulling the Buick onto the tow bed. “So it’s what? Half-past?” The car was totaled and then some. If not for the taillight pattern, he wouldn’t have been able to tell if he was hooking a Skylark or a Cavalier or a little Jap rice-eater. Over in the drainage ditch, a semi lay jackknifed. In the grime on the trailer doors somebody’d spelled out Free Breast Inspections: 53 Feet Ahead.

“She doesn’t listen anymore, Mike. I don’t know where her head’s at.”

Mike knew exactly where Kimmie’s head was at. She’d just turned thirteen. On her birthday Lisa gave her a lacy mall bra and the go-ahead to start dating. By Easter Kimmie’d stopped playing Go Fish with her brothers and had started catching rides with that Mitchell kid. Brian. A sophomore with a tricked-out Civic.

One of the ambulances yelped its siren and rolled away from the berm. “Hey, Lise,” Mike said. “Lemme finish up here. Kimmie’ll call any minute.”

“She’d better.”

A state trooper holding a clipboard walked up. Mike leaned into the lever, and with a groan the Buick continued its slide up the bed. “One second,” he said to the cop, “and I’ll sign for you.”

“Here and here, Phil,” the trooper said, tapping the release form with a ballpoint.

Mike looked down at his name patch and winced. Phil. He must have accidentally put on his boss’s work shirt. Phil Marquardt. As in Marquardt Towing & Recovery. As in Marquardt Towing: You Cook ’Em, We Hook ’Em, the tagline that was painted on the doors of Mike’s Jerr-Dan wrecker and on the four other trucks that made up Phil’s fleet. Marquardt always joked that as soon as he’d saved enough to retire down in St. Pete, he’d start a fishing tour business. “Shit, Dulaney, I already got the slogan,” he’d say, punching Mike on the shoulder. Phil’s Eastern Michigan class ring was fat enough to leave a bruise. “Just gotta switch it up: Marquardt Fishing: You Hook ’Em, We Cook ’Em.” What a jagoff. But as long as Phil was signing the paychecks, Mike’d have to put up with him. After all, it was Marquardt who’d gone out on a limb and hired him on, even after Mike’s fuck-up over at Milan High School the night the two football players died.

Mike took the clipboard from the trooper and signed the form. “They headed for Mercy or University?”

“University,” the cop said, signaling in some kind of trooper-code to another cop who was directing traffic with a Maglite.

“Driver’s pretty well busted up, huh.”

“Might be drunk-and-lucky enough to walk away.” The cop pointed at the Buick. “But looking at this tin can, I wouldn’t bet on it.”

Drunks, man. In the nine years Mike had been towing he’d seen plenty. And this time of year was the worst. Spring. Graduation season. So many parties ended with some poor kid in the back of an ambulance. A horny-ass high schooler fresh off his first game of quarters gets all full of piss and Bud Light and thinks the way into his girlfriend’s pants is driving ninety with no hands. Or else he passes out cold and skips the centerline just in time to get chopped down by a Kenworth. If Mike had a say in it, Kimmie’d never leave the house unless it was with him.

The paperwork squared away, he climbed into the cab and reached for the Camels he kept in the visor. He picked up the CB mic. “Debbie,” he said to Marquardt’s dispatcher, “off to impound.” Then he flipped on his light bar, and the trooper directed him into traffic.

*

Towing wasn’t all spiderwebbed windshields and the Jaws of Life. Most days Mike actually liked his job. The best was when he felt like he was doing something useful, contributing. Like pulling an old lady’s Crown Vic out of a snow bank or making a long distance haul to Cleveland, say, so a sorority girl could get her VW home for Christmas. The pay was good, too. With his steady overtime and with Lisa’s job at the title company, they could easily keep up the mortgage on their ranch in Milan, which, while not as fancy as Saline or Dexter, was still a nice place to raise kids—only fifteen miles from Ann Arbor and close, but not too close, to Detroit on those days when Mike would take Kimmie and the twins, Clay and Trev, to Tiger Stadium for a ballgame. They’d sit in the bleachers, and Mike would sip on a beer, amazed that he and Lisa could raise three kids, own in a decent neighborhood, keep everybody fed, and still afford big league tickets—all from towing cars and closing loans. He didn’t care what those U of M hippies thought. This was a pretty great country. If Mike Dulaney, son of a line worker and a waitress, could make it, anybody could.

He was pulling up to the police lot when Lisa called again. He turned down the CB chatter. “Mike speaking.”

“I know it’s you, babe. I’m calling you.”

He smiled and blew smoke through his nose. “You sound better. She home yet?”

“The first movie sold out, I guess, so the girls went to the ten o’clock instead.”

Mike was buzzed through the gates. His headlights beamed across rows of wrecked cars, their windows marked with grease pencil. “So you talked to Kimmie.”

“Not yet. Amber’s mom and Stephanie’s mom.”

Mike shook his head. “And just who’s driving these girls home?”

“Brian’s a good kid, Mike.”

“I don’t care how goddamn good he is. Sixteen-year-old boys don’t waste time with thirteen-year-old girls.” He ashed his cigarette out the window. “Unless they put out.”

Lisa made a huffing sound. “Kimmie’s not like that.”

“It’s him I’m worried about. I know how teenage boys think, Lise.”

“And I know a thing or two about teenage girls.”

“No shit,” Mike said. “And by sixteen you were already pregnant with Kimmie.” As soon as he said it, he knew he’d messed up bad.

He and Lisa were a couple weeks from their seventh anniversary. To celebrate, they planned to drive over to Windsor for a weekend at Caesars. Mike figured they could just as easily gamble at the MGM Detroit, but Lisa said going international was more romantic. Blackjack was Mike’s game. There was strategy involved. You had a say in the outcome. Lisa liked roulette, but she had no system, no plan. She just tossed chips on whatever numbers felt right, and somehow she always won more than he did. For this Windsor trip, though, he’d checked out a blackjack book from the library. He was going to show Lisa how, in the long run, strategy beat dumb luck every time. Then later, flush with a fat wallet, he’d to drop to one knee and ask her to marry him again. But after what he’d just said, there was no guarantee she’d say yes. By sixteen you were already pregnant with Kimmie. How could he be such a dumbass?

He could still remember what Lisa had been wearing the night of their first date: a white V-neck tucked into a pair of men’s Levi’s. She was Lisa Stubblefield then, and on Thursday nights she tended bar at Stubb’s Lounge. Her Dad, the actual Stubb, owned the place. Mike was driving for Milan Towing in those days, Phil Marquardt’s competition, and after every Thursday shift, he’d leave the wrecker at the garage, climb into the Nova he was hot-rodding up, and head to Stubb’s, where he’d nurse a couple Buds and pretend to watch the Wings or Pistons, both dreading and longing for the moment she’d look into the bar mirror and catch him staring at her ass.

One night Mike was studying the smell of her shampoo, when from the stool next to his came a beery whisper: “Hey, Dulaney.” It was Phil Marquardt. “Get a load of that moneymaker.”

“Shut your hole, Phil,” Mike said. The talk around Stubb’s was that Phil and Lisa used to date, but Mike just couldn’t see it. Lisa was so pretty and confident. And so much younger than Phil. And Phil was, well, Phil was fucking Phil.

When Marquardt finally went off to take a piss, Mike screwed up the nerve to ask Lisa for her number. She stopped him with the same line he’d heard her throw at one drunk or another every Thursday. “I don’t date the clientele,” she said, looking at the empty stool where Phil had been sitting. “Just a policy of mine.” Then she bent into the beer cooler, and Mike could see straight down her V-Neck. Bra, bellybutton, everything.

Maybe he’d read her all wrong. Maybe the way she’d brush her fingernails across the back of his hand was just part of the job. Maybe this whole time she’d been working him for tips. He was taking an inventory of all the ways he’d blown it when, as Phil settled back in, Lisa slid Mike a napkin with a note scribbled on it: I get off at 10. Do U like 2 dance?

He couldn’t dance worth a damn, but after three or four pitchers at a college bar in Ypsilanti, he managed to talk himself back to her apartment, where they both passed out on the living room rug before they could do anything more than some sloppy kissing.

The next morning, he was rifling through the fridge, looking for stuff to scramble for breakfast, when he heard the front door open. A little girl said, “Bye-bye, Nana.” Then came the rat-ta-tat of tiny feet racing down a hallway.

“Lisa, hon. I’m late for work,” called an older woman. “Remember, today’s the last day to get Kimmie signed up for soccer.”

In all his Thursdays at Stubb’s, Mike had heard nothing about Lisa having a kid, but here she was—a gap-toothed girl with brown hair and freckles, standing plank-straight on the linoleum, Hello Kitty overnight bag in her hand. He stood barefoot and shirtless in the light of the Frigidaire, a tattooed stranger wielding a spatula.

Kimmie dropped her bag, and Mike started to say something like “don’t worry.” But before he could get the words out, she was nudging past him, stretching into the fridge for a juice box. “We keep the eggs in the bottom drawer,” she said, jabbing the straw through the hole. “Is mom awake yet?”

After a few more dates with Lisa, Mike found himself taking Kimmie to Arborwood Lanes to play video games. Then it was Saturdays at the Detroit Zoo. Sundays at Domino’s Petting Farm. Nichols Arboretum. Chuck E. Cheese. He was spending nearly as much time with her as he was with Lisa, shocked at how at home he felt as the almost-stepfather. He was twenty-three, and up ’til then he’d never thought he wanted kids, but as spring warmed into summer, he started wondering how life would be if he could see Kimmie more than on the days that started with S. In his head, at least, he was using the word family. He started pricing engagement rings at Briarwood Mall.

All this made it hurt that much worse on the night Lisa held his hand across the kitchen table and said there was something important she needed to tell him. Phil Marquardt, she said, was Kimmie’s birth father. She rubbed her temples with her thumbs, saying she’d been young and drunk, a sixteen year-old who’d made a mistake. A one-time-only mistake. But it was a good mistake if there was such a thing, because it had given them—Lisa and Mike—Kimmie.

Mike could picture the two of them. Lisa and Phil. On a vinyl backseat. In the dark corner of the Stubb’s lot. He imagined Lisa saying wait, stop, she needed to go back inside to buy a condom from the men’s room machine. He imagined Phil fumbling with his belt, bending Lisa over, saying don’t worry he’d pull out. “You let him use you,” Mike said.

Lisa peeled the label from a Budweiser. “I don’t see it like that.”

“Sixteen. Six-fucking-teen.” Stomach acid burned Mike’s throat. He wiped his palms on his jeans and ran his thumb around the ring box in his front pocket. Just that afternoon he’d gone to Zales and bought a small diamond on a payment plan. “That cocksucker. Taking advantage of—”

“Give me more credit than that,” Lisa said. She rose from the table. “Nothing happened that I didn’t want to happen.”

Mike smacked the heel of his hand on the wall. “He came inside you. Did you want that?”

Lisa knocked her bottle to the floor, where it left a puddle of beer. Mike’s boots made sticky sounds as he walked through the kitchen and out the front door.

Ten months after the wedding, he and Lisa brought Clay and Trev home from Mercy Hospital. Thank God for Kimmie’s help. Lisa had quit Stubb’s to take the fulltime job at AmeriLoan, and in short order Kimmie became a diaper-changing whiz. For years she was the perfect big sister. Conscientious and reliable. And always so happy. But lately she’d started copping this sarcastic, tough-girl attitude. A few months ago, at the mall, when Lisa asked her to take Clay into the restroom with her, Kimmie said, “You’re his mom. You help him take a shit.” Then, just last week, Kimmie came home late from school with beer on her breath. She said she and Amber had found a forty-ounce in the woods behind the soccer fields, but Mike was certain they’d gotten the beer from Brian Mitchell. Or some kid like him. A kid with a car. A kid with a backseat.

*

After dropping the Buick at the police lot, Mike swung by home. He could see the glare of the TV through the living room curtains, but Lisa’s Caravan wasn’t in the driveway. Letterman’s closing credits were playing to an empty room. Lisa’s purse wasn’t in its usual spot on the counter. Surely she’d taken the twins with her, wherever she went, probably to pick up Kimmie from Amber’s. But no, Mike found Clay asleep on the bedroom floor. He’d crawled out of his bunk again. The boy had been a restless sleeper right out of the womb, a sleepwalker since he could walk. Mike and Clay had had detailed conversations that Clay had completely forgotten come sun-up. Mike scooped him up and tucked him in. In the top bunk Trev was sleeping like a stone.

As Mike eased away from the beds, Clay opened his eyes and said, “Chocolate milk?”

“Brown cows,” Mike whispered, the punchline to Clay’s favorite joke. He closed the door halfway. “See you at breakfast, buddy.”

Mike walked back to the living room, and through the window he saw Lisa turning into the driveway.

“Don’t even talk to me,” she said, slamming the front door. She was carrying a grocery sack in her hand.

“Where’s Kimmie?”

“How dare you start in with that teenage mother shit? Calling me a slut? Calling Kimmie—how fucking dare you?” She smacked her purse on the countertop, her key chains clanging against the Formica. “I didn’t hear you complaining when you were the one I was sleeping with.”

“You can’t leave Clay and Trev home alone, Lise.”

“If that’s what you think of me—” she reached into the sack, pulled out a pint of chocolate milk, and started pouring it into two juice glasses. “I don’t know, Mike. Sometimes I wonder why we bother.”

“I wasn’t talking about you. Or Kimmie. I was talking about that Brian kid.”

Lisa raised the two chocolate milks like she was putting up her dukes. “And I was only gone a minute.” She took the glasses into the boys’ bedroom.

Mike picked up the remote and sank into the La-Z-Boy. Some loud-as-shit infomercial was playing. He thumbed through the channels and landed back where he started. Coked-up host. Studio audience clapping and gasping like water’d been turned into wine. He shut off the TV and bent toward the coffee table, for the deck of cards he’d been practicing his new blackjack strategies with. But he was too wired to concentrate. Instead he rocked back and forth in the recliner, shuffling the cards in his lap. Then Lisa’s cell phone rang from inside her purse. Mike pushed out of the chair. Lisa came back from the boys’ room and dug for the phone. But it wasn’t Kimmie. It was Amber’s dad, Keith, calling because he’d just caught his daughter sneaking into the house, stinking of campfire smoke and peach schnapps.

Lisa put her palm over the phone and turned to Mike. “The movies. Bullshit.”

Amber’s dad said he’d gotten her to fess up that she and Kimmie had been at a party in Saline. At Brian Mitchell’s. The girls had a fight or something, and Amber bummed a ride and left Kimmie there, and if Amber thinks she’s so much as saying the word party before she turns twenty-one, she’s sorely mistaken. He volunteered—in fact, an ex-Marine, he enlisted himself—to drive to Saline with Lisa and Mike to see what the hell was going on.

“Thanks for the offer, Keith,” Lisa said. “But we’ll take care of this ourselves.” She hung up and scribbled an address on the grocery sack. “Way out on Mooreville Road,” she said to Mike.

He grabbed the sack, unclipped his keys from his belt, and headed toward the door.

“Mike, take the minivan,” Lisa said. “Kimmie doesn’t want her friends to see her picked up in the wrecker.”

As he pulled away from the house in the Jerr-Dan, Mike thought, Okay, Lisa, you got me. Kimmie’s daddy drives a tow-truck for a living.

*

He fired a Camel and drove north toward Saline, letting his arm hang out the window as the night blew past. The spring air was adrenaline. It smelled of antifreeze and those trees that reek like semen. It reminded him of his senior year, cruisin’ and boozin’ and looking for a fight. And graduation night, when he got a handjob from Bethany Davis in the front seat of her brother’s Grand Prix.

Soon he was passing Milan High School, and, like always, he looked hard at the chain link fence that ringed the football field. One twenty-foot section was shinier than the rest. He could still picture the rotting flowers and the set of broken bull horns that had served as a memorial for the two dead football players. He could still read the message that had stayed on the fence for months, spelled out in Styrofoam cups: D and S. We Miss U. His stomach turned as he thought about the Jeep piled on the fifty-yard line.

Mike had been on duty at Milan Towing that night two years ago, and he got the call to clear away the mangled Jeep. As he waited for the accident investigators to cut him loose, he shot the shit with a couple EMTs. Pretty soon they could piece together the story. Two Milan football players. Later he’d learn their names. Doug Jarvis and Scott Griesedieck. Starting center and second-string quarterback. Somebody said the kegs ran dry. Somebody else said Doug and Scott took off to go chase Ann Arbor tail. In any case, they drove away from the senior send-off party in Scott’s Jeep—the one with the bull horns mounted to the grille. One of them must have had to piss. Or it could have been a dare. But for some reason they stopped the Jeep right in the center of southbound 23. With the headlights off. Too drunk to notice they were sitting in a dip in the road. One of the EMTs had heard a witness say he thought he saw a kid in a red varsity jacket, standing on the driver’s seat with his cock in his right hand, waving to cars in the northbound lanes.

Mike could imagine Doug and Scott zipping their flies and dropping back into their seats. He figured that if Scott had checked the rearview mirror, he would have seen headlights appearing over the rise. The kid wouldn’t have panicked. He was a QB. A back-up, but still. He’d go through his reads: headlights-on, clutch and shift, accelerate. A few seconds either way and everybody would have made it home okay.

Doug died on the pavement. Neck broken, skull crushed. Scott was thrown halfway to the access road. He died in the I.C.U. Then there was the other driver, the poor guy who couldn’t have seen the Jeep parked in the highway until it was too late. The last thing he saw must have been taillights, two red eyes out of nowhere. Probably wasn’t even time to think, What the fuck? before he was impaled by his steering column. Maybe Lisa was dead on the money. Luck counted more than strategy. You could do all the right things, plan are prepare all you wanted, and still have the rug pulled out from under you by a couple dumb kids.

Mike tried to focus on the hooks and chains that night, but he couldn’t stop thinking about himself as a teenager, about all the stupid shit he’d done: the BB gun battles and bottlerocket wars, the joyriding in his mom’s car, the rocks he’d chucked through windows, the hairspray canisters he’d set on fire, the stop signs he’d stolen, the trains he’d jumped, the bridges he’d dove from. None of it seemed that long ago. And then there was the dumbest of all: The hurricane party, the summer after graduation, when he was working steel construction down in North Carolina. As Hurricane Fran came ashore in Wilmington, Mike and a few construction buddies were on Carolina Beach, tied together with body harnesses, the safety cable latched to a palmetto tree and running through the handle of a 60-quart Igloo stocked with two cases of Budweiser. Halfway through the beer, as the storm surge started hitting hard, they chickened out, unhooked themselves, fought their way into their trucks, and somehow made it wet and bruised to a shelter at an elementary school. Fran ended up killing six or seven people in the Carolinas, and Mike was positive that if they’d stayed on the beach, he’d have been one of them. His mom and dad would’ve had to bury him, just like the football players’ parents would have to do to their boys.

Instead of taking what was left of the Jeep to the impound lot, he towed it straight out to Milan High School. He wasn’t exactly sure why he was doing it, except maybe he needed to see the place where those kids had been most alive. And there was the football field, lit up by the one light in each tower that stayed on to keep vandals from messing around on the turf. He aimed for a spot between the bleachers and the concession stand, and then he squeezed the steering wheel, closed his eyes, and hit the gas. The wrecker hopped the curb and smashed through the fence. Once on the field, he hit the brakes, laying tire tracks for a good fifteen yards. He swung around so that the big red “M” painted on the fifty was directly behind him. Then he killed the engine. And he dropped the Jeep right there.

Stubb’s lawyer fought to get the charges reduced from Felonious to Careless, but the judge didn’t bite. He fined Mike $500, plus twenty feet of fence and 900 square yards of new sod. Thirty days suspended. Milan Towing fired him the next day. Mike spent his afternoons that fall and winter in the La-Z-Boy, feeling sorry for himself. He was now the target audience for those TV commercials that aired during the daytime—the ones that advertised mail-order diplomas and CDL licenses. He hated how soft he was getting, and he resisted at first, but once his Fruit of the Looms started leaving a waistband mark on his skin, he loosened his belt a notch. Worse was the image of himself he saw in Lisa and Kimmie’s eyes. Pitiful. Even the twins, just two then, shot him dirty looks. He made plans to plant a garden, clean the gutters, straighten out the garage, but somehow his legs just felt too heavy, and he told himself he’d start tomorrow.

Every Sunday morning he’d head down to the Citgo station and check the want ads in the Ann Arbor News. Dishwasher and Day Laborer. Material Handler and Punch-out Man. But the effort of landing one of those jobs—making the phone call, ironing his church khakis, driving to pick up the application, filling out the form, sitting through the interview, making the follow-up call—seemed like an insurmountable string of tasks, something like putting a man on the moon. Still, every Sunday he felt energized, like he could do anything, be anything he wanted: doctor, lawyer, fireman, anything. Then he’d remember the one question that appeared on every job application he’d ever filled out. Have you ever been convicted of a felony? How in the world would he explain what had sent him through the fence and onto the football field? Even now, two years later, Mike still couldn’t make sense of that night in his own head. And by Sunday supper, the impossibility of convincing an interviewer to see him as anything other than convicted felon would make Mike’s legs feel heavy again, sending him back to the La-Z-Boy, where the sad truth about being a tow man was finally dawning on him: You always got there too late to do anything but clean up the wreck.

One night he was out picking up a Little Caesars when Phil Marquardt pulled up next to him, rolled down the window, and said, “Fuckin-A, Dulaney. Why’d you have to go and make a shitty situation even worse?”

Mike stared straight ahead, revving the engine. The image of Lisa having sex with this douchebag was back. He saw Phil going down on her. He saw Lisa liking it. He counted months on his fingers and realized that he and Lisa hadn’t had sex since he’d lost his job.

“Look, buddy. It’s like this,” Phil said. “I don’t want Kimmie to starve because her step-dad can’t keep his shit together. If you think you can get your ass off the couch, I got a spot open for you. Just promise me you won’t melt down every time some kid bangs up daddy’s car.”

Mike sped home without having said a word. As Lisa warmed the pizza in the oven, he told her about Marquardt’s job offer.

“When do you start?”

Mike hung his jacket on the hall tree and angled for the recliner. “I don’t.”

“You told him no?” Lisa let the oven door bang shut.

He pulled the lever that sprang the footrest. “I didn’t tell him anything.”

“Pizza!” Kimmie said. She slid across the kitchen floor in her socks. Clay and Trev stomped close behind.

Lisa walked into the room, holding the phone in her oven mitt. “Call him right now.”

Mike reached for the remote and flipped on the TV. “I’m still weighing my options.”

“Mom, where’s that oven mitt?” Kimmie called from the kitchen.

“Hang on, baby. Now, Mike.”

“I’m thinking I might head over to Ford Plastics tomorrow,” Mike said. “I heard they got openings for—”

Kimmie shrieked in pain. She’d burnt herself on the oven rack.

It couldn’t have been half a second before Lisa threw up her hands and bolted to the kitchen, but in that instant she shot him a look that said, I can’t do this alone, Mike. I need help, Mike. I’m tired, Mike. Her lips stretched thin and white, and the skin tightened over her chin. This was the same face she showed the kids when one of them skinned a knee or raspberried up an elbow. Trev’s bloody noses, Clay’s sleepwalking bruises. It made Mike feel like a piss-ant who needed everything done for him.

As the rest of the family sat at the table dividing up the pizza, Mike dialed Marquardt’s number. He watched Kimmie, her palm red and slick with margarine to cool the burn, cut Clay and Trev’s slices into bite-sized pieces while Marquardt was saying, “Good, Dulaney. It’s about time you made a smart decision.” Kimmie stole a pepperoni from Trev, teasing him with it, and Marquardt said, “I’m just glad to help you support your family.” Then Kimmie tore a pepperoni from Clay’s slice. When Clay reached to get it back, he knocked over his Hawaiian Punch. Juice spilled across the table and ran onto the floor, and Phil said, “I’ve had some success, and I’m lucky to be in a position to share it.”

Mike cocked the phone between his ear and shoulder and unrolled a wad of paper towels. “See you Monday, Phil,” he said, and he bent down to wipe up the mess.

*

Mike could tell he was nearing Saline because suddenly the houses were all steroided up. This all used to be cornfields. Now it was a bumper crop of five and six bedroom jobs. Three car garages. Vaulted ceilings. The whole nine. He reminded himself he still needed to buy a ticket for tomorrow’s Mega Millions.

The houses on Mooreville Road were much older—Victorian farmhouses and depression-era barns. He started looking for addresses, but it was too dark to make out the numbers. Soon the road turned to dirt. It had been a dry spring, and the truck kicked up dust as Mike sped along.

Then he smelled smoke. The road doglegged to the right, and from behind a hundred year-old house that was twice the size of his own, shot the flames of a bonfire. He jerked the truck into the driveway, making a point of spraying gravel. The air brakes hissed as he skidded to a stop. He jumped down from the cab and slammed the door in a way that he hoped would get some attention. That’s right, he thought. You Cook ’Em, and We Motherfucking Hook ’Em.

The Mitchells’ whole front yard, almost an acre, had been turned into a Motocross course, with dirt trails and jump ramps. Two bikes were tipped on their sides in the gravel. The yard was littered with bottles and cans, but there were no people around. No Civic-driving pricks. No gum-smacking girls. No Kimmie.

When Mike walked along the side of the house, he saw two guys tossing pieces of a broken pallet into the fire. The flames crawled shoulder high. “Hey, fellas,” he said. He bit down hard to stay calm.

“Oh, shit, dude,” said the one in the Hollister T-shirt, laughing. “You scared the piss out of me.” He was pinching a joint in his palm.

Mike pushed his sleeves well past his elbows. “You two seen Kimmie Dulaney?”

The other one, wearing a Notre Dame hoodie and holding a beer, nodded toward the driveway and the tow truck. “Sweet rig, dude.” He reached over to Hollister for the joint. “Think I could take that bitch out for a spin?”

“Kimmie Dulaney. You know her?”

Hollister pointed toward an upstairs window. “My boy Brian’s inside taking that bitch for a spin right now.”

“Okay, fuckers.” Mike lunged for Hollister, but the kid juked to the side, and Mike whiffed. He stumbled to the ground. Notre Dame doubled over with laughter.

“Look, old man,” said Hollister, the veins in his forehead popping. “You get one free. Next time I hurt you.”

Mike’s reflexes weren’t what they used to be, but it wasn’t every day this point was made so clearly. Even drunk, these kids could take him.

He got to his feet as the screen door swung open. A gray-haired guy in his late forties stepped onto the back deck. “Hey, wha’d I tell you guys? Let’s keep it down out here.”

“No problem, sir,” said Notre Dame, palming the joint but not even bothering to hide the beer.

Mike couldn’t believe it. “Are you Mitchell?” He brushed himself off and walked over to the deck. “What the fuck is going on here?”

“Do I know you?” said Mitchell.

“You’re fucking gonna know me.”

Mitchell set his Diet Coke on the deck railing. “Are you threatening me?”

Mike stood spitting distance. “My daughter, my thirteen-year-old daughter, was supposed to be home two hours ago.” He looked toward Hollister and Notre Dame who’d gone back to stoking the fire. “I ought to get on the CB and call the cops right now.”

“Take it easy,” said Mitchell. “They’re going to drink anyway. I’d rather have them do it here.”

“Maybe you didn’t hear me. My daughter’s thirteen.”

The screen door opened again and suddenly Kimmie was standing on the deck, wearing too much makeup and a top that was way skimpier than the one she’d left the house in. “Mike?” she said.

It stung that she called him by name. “You’re leaving. Right now.”

Kimmie looked over at the fire. “Not with you, I’m not,” she said, and she started back into the house, into the rumpus room, where Mike could see the Mitchell kid wanking away on a video game.

“Now,” Mike said, and he took two steps toward Kimmie.

The kid’s punk father came at Mike, saying, “Hey! Let’s not—” Mike shoved him backwards. His boat shoes slipped on the deck, but he stayed upright.

Mike wanted to go after him, to beat the old fucker down, but he didn’t want to do it in front of Kimmie. Halfway into the house, Mike caught her by her skinny bicep. “Your mom’s been calling all night.”

“My dad’s coming to get me.”

He pulled her out to the deck. Three inches of bangle bracelets clinked on her wrist. “Your dad’s got you right now.” He heard a ringing sound from Kimmie’s purse. He tore the bag from her hand and pulled out her phone. The caller ID read, Daddy Phil.

Mike slammed the cell to the driveway. From over by the fire Hollister laughed as Mike stomped his work boots down on the phone. Down and down again, until it was cracked plastic and circuit guts.

*

As soon as she got in the cab, Kimmie closed her eyes and leaned her head against the window. Mike said, “Put on your seat belt,” and nothing else, afraid he might say something he’d regret later. He didn’t want to put himself in a position where he’d have to apologize to her.

He picked up the CB and got a hold of Debbie back at the garage. He told her three times that he quit. He told her to tell Marquardt he could go straight to hell. Then he said, no, he’d tell the son of a bitch himself.

Halfway home, Mike started feeling bad about the tone he’d taken with Debbie. She was good people, raising two kids on her own. “Look, Deb,” he said when he got back on the radio. “I got a family emergency happening here.”

Kimmie clicked her tongue.

“Everybody all right?” Debbie said.

Mike looked over at Kimmie. “Yeah, it’s just—look, tell the boss the truck will be at my house tonight. I’ll see him tomorrow.”

“You’re coming in tomorrow?”

“I’ll be in,” he said.

By the time they reached Milan, Mike knew he was going to have to say something to Kimmie. Something parental. “Listen to me,” he said. “There’s one thing I want to make sure you know.”

She crossed her arms and shook her head. “Please don’t tell me how you’re my real dad or some psychology shit like that.”

“You’re stuck with Daddy Phil there,” Mike said. On their left was the High School. “What you’ve gotta know is that anything you can even think of doing, I’ve already done it. And I’ve done it ten times worse than you.”

“What are you talking about?”

It was a line his dad had always used with him. But Mike didn’t buy it back then any more than Kimmie was buying it right now. Truth was he didn’t feel much like an adult, let alone like somebody’s father. He didn’t feel any older or smarter than when he’d harnessed himself to a palm tree or dropped that Jeep on the field. But he figured his job tonight—hell, every night—was to fake it. “You know what it takes to grow up, Kimmie?”

She rolled her eyes. “Milk?”

“It takes fucking luck, okay? And when I think about all the dumb-ass stuff I’ve done, and somehow, after riding around in this truck all day, I still get to come home to you and your mom and your brothers and goddamn, I don’t know what, but I must’ve done something right.”

“What did you do right? You and mom got three kids and a tiny house in a shitty small town.” She looked out the window. “Keep your luck away from me.”

As they pulled up to the house, Lisa stood in the driveway with her arms crossed, her purse hanging from her shoulder. The truck whined to a stop along the curb, and Kimmie hopped out. She cut through the yard toward the door. Mike watched from the truck as Lisa intercepted her on the porch, but Kimmie elbowed past and into the living room.

“This is not over, Kimmie,” Lisa said through the screen. “Do you hear me?”

Lisa reached into her purse and pulled out a sad-looking Marlboro Ultra Light she’d probably been walking around with for a month. Mike climbed down from the truck and joined her on the porch. Neither of them said anything. They leaned against the aluminum siding, exhaling smoke up toward the porch light.

Then a movement in the window stole Mike’s attention. Through the curtains he could see Clay, wandering through the living room in his jammies. The boy was sleepwalking again. Even dead asleep, he knew his way around the house. Only rarely did he bump into a doorjamb or trip over a toy he and Trev had played with earlier. Mike watched as Clay marched over to the coffee table and reached for Mike’s blackjack cards. He grabbed clumsily, and the cards scattered across the coffee table and onto the floor. Still asleep, he sat down Indian style and started sorting them into piles.

Mike nudged Lisa and nodded toward the window. She watched for a few seconds, smiling. He laced his fingers across her firm belly and pulled her in close. She reached backwards and took his elbows, raising his arms up and over her shoulders. They were standing back to front, looking through the window, when Kimmie, now dressed in a t-shirt and sweats, walked up to Clay and his card game. She crouched low and whispered something to him. She ran her nails through his hair. Then Kimmie took Clay by the wrist and led him back to bed.

JOE OESTREICH’s work has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, Ninth Letter, Fourth Genre, and elsewhere. He has been awarded a fellowship from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, honored by The Atlantic Monthly, and shortlisted in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007, The Best American Essays 2008 and 2009, and The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses 2010. He is an Assistant Professor of English at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, SC, where he co-edits Waccamaw. His memoir, Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock and Roll, is forthcoming from Lyons Press in June 2012.