Who We Belong To
I spent the better part of last week deciding whether to kill myself or ride up to the new Dollar General store. I sat on the fence about it for a few days, mulled over those coupons they mailed out. Grand Opening! $5 off every $25 spent!! I didn’t have twenty-five dollars to spend but I went anyway. Thought, what the hell. Maybe I’d run into Auby or Hickey. It didn’t much matter to me, just as long as I ran into somebody instead of sitting around the trailer scratching my balls in the heat waiting for the fan to oscillate back in my direction. I couldn’t take much more of Daisydog either, flopped on the linoleum staring up at me with her hungry pitiful eyes. I figured maybe with it being the Grand Opening! and all, I could pick up some kibble cheap. But I wasn’t holding my breath about it.
You ask me, the Dollar General’s prices aren’t good at all. Not like the Buck Hut where everything is just one dollar, believe it or not. Take the toy section. I could go in there, buy Jordie a few things to play with in the bathtub, a couple picture books about animals, a balloon, a pair of socks, a snickers bar, and never spend more than ten bucks. You’d have thought I’d spent a hundred the way Jordie hugged on me whenever I came home from the Buck Hut. I’d been meaning to take him up there to pick something out himself, just never got around to it.
Anyway, I knew if I ran into Hickey I’d have to listen to him jaw on about this or that like he always did. Mainly he’d complain about being in hot water with the Judge for not paying his child support again. Sometimes all his yammering-on aggravated me. Other times it made me feel better about my own life situation. After listening to Hickey I’d think, at least I don’t have all that to worry over. If I was having to find a ride to town every other month to face ol’ Judge Haywood and explain why I hadn’t paid my child support – I believe I would go on and kill myself. No question there.
As it was, me and Mandy weren’t even together anymore so kids weren’t an option. At least not between me and her. She’s got Jordie but he isn’t mine. Tell you the truth, I’m not sure Mandy knows who he belongs to. She doesn’t let on like she knows, just says she doesn’t want to talk about all that. Jordie’s five. Since no guy ever came sniffing around looking for him the whole time Mandy and me were together, I figure it’s nothing to lose sleep about. Whoever he is, he doesn’t care much about Jordie.
When Mandy broke it off with me, I didn’t see it coming. Jordie was sitting there rolling his matchbox truck back and forth on this piece of curled up linoleum in the kitchen, making car noises like usual. I poured Mandy a sweet tea and squeezed some lemon in it like she likes, then I started in on my six-pack. I should’ve known something was up when she didn’t touch her drink. I can be slow to catch on that way.
Looking back on it, she was real quiet that day. She’s always quiet but that day she hardly said a word. She said something like, “I can’t go on like this, Tripp. I have Jordie to think about.” Up to about a month before Mandy said this, I had been finding work every time I turned around. Landing jobs here and there, getting paid decent under the table. So at first when Mandy said she was pulling up stakes, I didn’t get her reasoning. But when I took a step back, saw Jordie pushing that little truck around and seen how Mandy was staring at him like he hung the moon; I could see her point.
With Mandy gone, I didn’t have much reason to bust my ass looking for work. Daisydog could scare up something to eat if she had to and I didn’t have much of an appetite. Especially when I thought about the trailer being empty of the little noises Jordie made, or my bed being empty of Mandy.
The first night after Mandy left I woke up to Jordie crying, calling out, Tripp! Tripp! I ran out to the couch expecting to find him sitting up rubbing tears out of his eyes. My heart was pumping in my throat but my damn legs were still asleep. I about kicked over the coffee table trying to get to him. Empty beer bottles went clanking up against one another. They ended up all over the place, spilling the last bit that never wants to come out. I pawed at the couch trying to grab Jordie up in my arms and came up with nothing but his little blanket. Just some old tattered throw I’d had around that Jordie had claimed as his. It still smelled like him, sweet and sour with little kid sweat.
I stayed there a long while thinking up ways to win Mandy back. Hell I even came up with a plan solid enough that I was able to fall back to sleep. When I woke up a few hours later with a goddamn couch spring pressing into my ribcage, I realized then my grand plan was nothing more than loneliness conspiring with the blackest part of the night. I couldn’t help it, I started crying thinking about how Mandy wouldn’t be sitting on the rocking chair on the porch, sipping on her sweet tea, her hair a mess from tossing around in the bed with me. I hadn’t cried like that in fifteen almost sixteen years. Embarrassing.
That day I drove up to the Dollar General I did run into Hickey. He was haggling with the cashier over how she’d rung his order up wrong. Poor girl. Here it was her first day on the register with live customers and ol’ Hickey’s rattling her chains.
“Jesus, Hickey, give the girl a break already.”
I clapped him on the shoulder to say hello and to snap him out of it. I about broke his scrawny body in half hitting him as hard as I did, but it worked. He jerked around in my direction, stopped staring a hole in that girl as if every problem in the world was her doing. She probably thought he was rabid the way spit was gathering at the corner of his mouth. She couldn’t know that was his usual.
“It’s highway fucking robbery,” Hickey said.
“Well, next time don’t buy anything,” I said. “Ain’t no law that says you’ve got to shop here.”
Hickey fixed his eyes back on that girl, but I know he heard me because he snatched his receipt out of her hand and stuffed it down his pants pocket. Then he clawed his bag off the counter and made for the exit. I went behind him, shaking my head so the girl would see I didn’t agree with the way he was handling the situation. Once we were outside, Hickey let loose about what really had him so tore up.
“I’m fixin’ to go to jail tomorrow because of them people,” he said.
He was chawing on a Milky Way bar like he hadn’t eaten a day in his life, half of it spilling out of his mouth when he talked.
“Them people? You mean your kids?”
“The way Rhonda Sue carries on, I ain’t even sure they are my kids. She acts like she hates my goddamn guts.”
I could tell he’d been thinking about his situation for several hours by the time I ran into him. Once he got on the subject of Rhonda Sue, there was no stopping him. I’d been told she spent a good amount of her time bitching about Hickey. A match made in Heaven.
“Me dropping off Huggies don’t mean a damn thing to Judge. He wouldn’t care if I nursed ‘em at my own tit.” Hickey puffed out his chest and dropped his voice low to do his best impression of Judge. “Just pay your support in full, Mr. Hickey and we won’t have to meet down here at the court house like we have been.”
Hickey went back to slouching, like a kid that’s been hollered at. “He don’t care that Rhonda Sue won’t use that money on the kids, she’ll spend it on herself and laugh all the way to the bank when the next check comes.”
I let Hickey prattle on, knowing he was just blowing off steam. He needed to get all that off his chest before he headed to court. Especially if Rhonda Sue brought Ray-Ray Jr. and Brittany to court with her. Everybody knew it was for effect. Cute little buggers. Blue-eyed and red-headed. No mistaking who they belonged to.
For all the spouting off Hickey was doing outside the Dollar General, I knew he’d play it quiet at the courthouse. He was afraid of Judge just like the rest of us. Hell, Judge knew what trouble you’d wind up in before it even found you. If you didn’t take advantage of ‘the opportunities available to you,’ as he called them, he would throw your ass in jail for a few days to let you marinate on the error of your ways.
“That old son of a bitch thinks he can just tell everybody settin up in that courthouse to get a job,” Hickey said. “Like it’s some easy thing to do in this piss-ant town. I’d like to see him get a job that easy.”
“He’s got a job, Hick. A pretty decent one at that.”
“He acts like I’m settin up here enjoying being broke all the goddamn time. Like I don’t want to work. How’s he know I’m not trying, Tripp? Huh?”
“He knows. Everybody knows. Word gets around.”
The door to the Dollar General opened and closed. Hickey jerked his head to the side and got a dirty look in on the cashier.
“Hey,” I said, “you seen Auby lately?”
“Not if I can help it.” Hickey laughed like it was the first time he’d said this.
Auby is Hickey’s half-stupid cousin. I don’t say it to be mean. He fell out of a tree some years back and landed on his head. He’d scaled up a tulip tree chasing after a cat who didn’t care to be caught. Hickey told me Auby kept on climbing well past the point he ought to, then shimmied out onto a branch where that cat sat swishing her tail at him. The branch broke and Auby fell, the arms on that old tulip tree tried to catch his fat little body but missed. Hickey said he never saw so much blood come out of a person’s head before or since. Auby went stupid after that. Hickey and I have spent more than a few afternoons considering whether that boy wasn’t a bit slow to begin with.
Tell you the truth, I was glad I hadn’t been around to see that mess. A sight like that sticks with me more than it ought to. I got about three things stuck in my mind at all times, depending on what’s going on in my life. Some of them strong enough to make me contemplate not sticking around. The day I went to the Dollar General, I carried with me the repeating image of Mandy asleep next to me in nothing but her panties and a t-shirt, her face mushed up in the pillow. A peaceful sight as far as that goes, until I factored in she’d left me.
Second, and I’m not sure this doesn’t qualify as a bigger deal, was this image of Jordie. His face glowing with a smile so big his eyes disappeared, his little hands holding onto his latest matchbox car. Several times a day since Mandy left I’d hear him call for me to come play with him. And the thing of it was I’d get up from whatever I was doing and look for him until I realized he was gone.
In between Mandy and Jordie popping into my mind were these snippets of my little brother Birdy and me playing catch the day he died. This has been stuck in my mind for going on sixteen years, playing like a picture reel, running all the damn time in the background of my life.
Somewhere in the middle of Hickey complaining about having three kids to take care of, I caught the memory of Birdy the day he died.
It always starts the same. First the scent of leather oil floats on the air and I can hear Birdy plunking a baseball into his new glove. Then, I see myself throwing that final pop fly. The ball goes in the air so high that the sun swallows it up and makes it invisible. I call out, “Go long,” even though it’s baseball we’re playing and not football. Birdy yells, “I got it! I got it!” He ambles backward, squints his freckled face up at the sky. I see every inch of his six year-old face, his long eyelashes catching the sunlight, his little bitty nose flaring with the excitement of doing the thing he loves best. The ball falls from the sky looking like it’s coming straight at me and steals my attention away from Birdy. At first I don’t notice him inching backward toward the kettle of boiling oil on the fire pit behind him.
The ball lands. Birdy’s heels catch on the stones around the fire pit. His face changes from grinning and squinting to wide-eyed surprise. He jerks his arms back to break his fall and lands hard against the pot. The cast iron handle clangs against its potbelly as the whole thing tilts. Oil sizzles against the hot rocks. Then flames whoosh, leaping and engulfing Birdy. The heat from the flames slaps my face. Someone’s screaming, a deafening noise, then silence. My body is numb, immovable. I’m frozen in the sound of my brother being burned alive.
Ma comes tearing across the lawn with the hose in her hand and starts spraying before she even gets to the fire. She’s yelling at me but I can’t hear her, can only see her mouth moving. The vein in her neck bulging. Her slipper in the grass behind her.
Orange and red shapes dance higher and higher into the air. My hands are on Birdy. I pull at him. I lose my grip against his skin, melted into his clothes, crusted and curled, hanging and dripping off the bone. Still bubbling. I squeeze harder as the flames lick my arms and shoot up toward my chest. I hold on until Birdy is out of the fire and in the grass. Ma’s beside me grunting, slapping at the flames with her apron. Birdy’s skin latches onto the apron and stretches in long threads. Then everything around me goes gray. The colors of the flames disappear. The blue of my mother’s eyes are drained and turn ashen. Forever.
I know that this memory is mine to carry. The events of that day belong to me as much as Hickey’s kids belong to him. I’ve got to answer for that day. The difference is I’ve got to face myself, not the Judge. I can’t say who is harder, but I can guess.
Hickey’d been squeezing that Milky Way wrapper in his fist the whole time he was talking, flattening it down to near nothing with his frustration. He looked down at it in his hand, sort of surprised that it was there, and chucked it into the parking lot. The wrapper skittered across the blacktop, catching on a breeze, twisting this way and that way. Made me think; ain’t that life for you? Getting squeezed, thrown and caught on a breeze, never quite sure where you’ll end up. Could be outside the Dollar General, could be worse.
“I best get moving,” I said. I could hardly get the words out. I no more than got my key in the car door when Hickey called out, “Hey, where’s Mandy?”
I eased into my seat, hoping to God he wouldn’t come stand by my window and carry on about Mandy not being with me. He might’ve said something more but I couldn’t hear him over the rub of metal on metal as I yanked the door closed. That old Dodge was about sound proof once the doors were closed and the windows were up. The silence made me deaf for a second, then came Birdy clamping his glove open and shut like he did a thousand times to break it in. I clunked the car into gear and rolled on out of the parking lot. As soon as I hit Highway 50 and got my windows rolled down, I started to feel a little better.
I’d been up and down that stretch of 50 so many times, the car about drove itself. I pulled against the steering wheel when my turn came up just to keep it from driving straight to the trailer. I cruised out along the two-lane highway, just under the speed limit, focusing on little things; the road cut between rocky shale walls. The tiny waterfalls spilling out here and there. The trees gathered up like bunches of broccoli. The clouds thick with the threat of rain.
I was on autopilot, my brain telling my body what to do without me even having to think. I got to wishing it could stay that way, me not having to decide anything, just sit there at the wheel and watch the world go by. But sometimes I didn’t much like what the world slung at me.
Before I knew it, the car took me by Mandy’s Meemaw’s house, where Mandy was staying. I drove by, released the gas so as to roll past without being noticed. Jordie was out in the yard, whacking at the grass with a stick, his little ball cap on backwards. Mandy was watching him from the porch. She had on jean shorts with the front cuffed up. They showed off her tanned legs.
At the sight of the two of them my mind stopped working. I stepped on the brakes, then gunned it, then went back to the brakes hard. All that indecision made it look like the old Dodge couldn’t make up its damn mind what to do. Mandy quick turned her head toward the road and Jordie followed suit. When he realized it was me he waved with all his might. Hell I had no choice but to turn around and pull into Meemaw’s driveway.
Mandy smiled polite at me as I cut the engine off. She raised her eyebrows a little like maybe she was glad to see me? I could hardly get out the door before Jordie ran up to the car, squinting his eyes up at me against the sun coming out. He called my name about a dozen times, Tripp! Tripp! Tripp!
I came out careful not to knock the little fella over with the car door. He latched onto my thigh like he’d always done. Mandy hugged me around the neck quick and stood there as pretty as ever. It about took my legs out from under me when I remembered we weren’t together anymore. I steadied myself against the Dodge and tried to look casual.
“I hope you don’t mind I stopped by,” I said.
“No, it’s fine,” Mandy said. She stared down at Jordie still clinging to my leg. “He’s been missing you.”
The sun dipped behind a stack of white clouds and the air went cool. Before long Mandy said, “Jordie, run on inside and get Tripp a coke. Get yourself one, too.” Jordie didn’t need to be told twice when it came to having a Coca-Cola.
Mandy and me leant against the car, her real close next to me on her own doing. I got the feeling she was waiting for me to say something. But I’m no good in that department so I said nothing. I didn’t have a real plan and anything I’d entertained up to that point didn’t seem to fit the situation. Finally, I decided to reach over take her hand. When I did, she didn’t pull away.
“Well,” I said. Then I just stood there trying to figure out what to do next.
“If you and Jordie want, I thought we could take a ride up to the Buck Hut.”
Just then Jordie came running out the front door with a Coke in each hand. He had them all shook up by the time he got to me.
“Thank you sir,” I said.
The formality of it must’ve tickled him some because he laughed. He held up both his coke and mine and waited on me to open them. I handed him my keychain with the bottle opener on it and said, “You try.” The way he went jumping around in excitement you’d a thought I’d given him the keys to my car and asked him to drive. He tried but he couldn’t get the bottles open so I went on and popped the tops off. He drunk about half his in three swallows.
“Get your shoes on, Jordie,” Mandy said. “Tripp’s taking us up to the store.”
Next thing I know, we’re piled up in the car and I’m steering that old Dodge toward the Buck Hut.