We had to go in Uncle Joe’s beat-to-shit wagon because the alternator went in my dad’s Chevy. I didn’t like it. It meant we’d be riding with Uncle Joe the whole way, listening to him bullshit about his life. Knew I’d get stuck in the back with his damned husky. The mangy thing smelled and was too eager to be loved. I’d shove it away, but it would always come back, the same dumb grin on its face every time.
We were going to Connecticut because my grandfather died. We got off to a late start, which put Uncle Joe in a bad mood. He yelled at other drivers, yelled at his car, yelled at my dad. My dad tried to smile and brush it off, looked for some way to make it pleasant—but all he got from Uncle Joe for that were these suspicious stares.
Then there was the light from the sun, all faint and nostalgic, with golden rays of late evening lighting up every damned leaf in the woods. People in school always get impressed when I know words like “nostalgic.” They say, “Oh, he’s so smart. Wouldn’t think it, would you?” These little brats from their big houses coming up to me all the time, wearing their fucking clothes they just bought yesterday. I’m wearing dirty jeans and a secondhand tee-shirt passed down from whatever scumbag in my family got tired of Aerosmith. The rich shits tell me I could be all smart like them, and it’s supposed to feel good.
Truth was, that day, I was feeling good—really good—and what I hated most about that trip with my father and uncle, right from the start, was that all I wanted to do was call Helen Plum, who told me I was sweet the afternoon before we left. Sweet and smart, she said. I only nodded, but an hour later, I was in love with her. Hell yeah. Helen Plum. I looked up her number while my dad was in the kitchen putting half-empty bottles of booze into a backpack. I was going through the Plums in the book, trying to figure out the one for Helen’s family. Mom was on the couch, smoking cigarettes and watching me. She didn’t usually take much notice of things. Just sat there all day on the couch. She was sick. Sick of perpetual shame is what I think, but I’d never say that to her.
She said, “Whatcha doing, Jasper?”
I said, “Nothing, Mom. Just looking up someone’s number.”
“You remember her. She came by last weekend. Short hair, dyed purple.” The girl I was talking about was named Ariel something. She’d just moved to our nasty little part of Nashua. My mother nodded. I knew she wouldn’t know the name. Also knew she’d like the thought of a purple-haired girl whose last name was Plum.
She took another drag. There were only three Plums listed, and only one was local. I wrote the number on a piece of foil torn from a pack of GPCs. My heart got light because the phone on the coffee table was right there in front of me. The challenger’s stare.
“You ready, Jasper?”
But it was just my father, ready to go, not the phone taunting me, and I knew that. But I thought it was funny, all the same–the timing, you know? Through the living room window, I could see Uncle Joe’s car idling in the driveway. Uncle Joe smoked a cigarette and slapped his dog in the face. The dog looked like it was grinning, enjoying getting smacked like that.
Finally I said, “Yeah.” Flipped the phone book closed. I tucked the number in the breast pocket of my flannel, and that was that.
* * *
Stifled in the dark car, cigarette smoke curling under my nose, I felt dry. My dad and uncle were filling me with their own nastiness. Uncle Joe talked about my Aunt Nora. He’d renamed the dog Nora after my aunt divorced him a year ago. Even though she’d been living in Tennessee for a good six months, he still had stories to tell about how she was an awful bitch who was ruining his life. Thank God he’d broken free. Uncle Joe pounded the top of his car with his fist in triumph, and my father laughed. Smiled. Told Uncle Joe how he hated the sight of my mother’s naked body.
“Man, I can’t help but laugh. She puts on these cheap little numbers and tries to dance around like she was some kind of sexy bitch working at Guenevere’s. Then she gets all upset when I tell her to get her fucking clothes back on, but whatever, man. She ain’t no fucking Julia Roberts. She ain’t nothing but a tired, old fat-body with bad teeth that I have to keep feeding.”
The dog was beside me, and it pissed me off. It was lapping my face and whining. Then it looked at me with that sad face dogs get, as though I could do something for it. I tried to get it to lie down, but it wouldn’t. It paced about, climbed around—never comfortable.
“Having fun back there, Jasper?” my uncle said. He smiled at me in the mirror. “Dog’s a bitch, ain’t she? I love it. C’mere, Nora.”
The dog jumped up between the front seats. It tried to climb over Uncle Joe’s shoulder. It nudged his arm, and the car swerved. Uncle Joe shoved Nora into the back again. The dog fell into the narrow space between my knees and the back of my father’s seat. It managed to climb out with a little work. Then it stared at me again. It shifted its weight back and forth between its two front legs and resumed its whimpering.
* * *
We made it to the motel in Connecticut by seven o’clock. The funeral was set for two o’clock the next day. A plan formed. They’d drink in the room until eleven and then head out to the bars. They’d get me in, of course. I was sixteen, but in my family, that was just a number—a part of someone else’s law.
We threw our bags in a small closet in the motel, and Uncle Joe sent me and my father out for liquor. He said he wanted to make a telephone call. One guess as to who it was he wanted to call and why he wanted us gone.
Out in the hallway, I asked my dad, “You think I could maybe make a call later?”
“Someone from school.”
He didn’t need to say more. No money of my own. I’d done the forms for a few job places, but no one had called me back yet. Dad blamed that on me, too. It was typical. So I was still dependent on handouts, and I’d heard all my dad’s long-distance speeches enough times to know I wouldn’t be making the call to Helen Plum from the motel room.
But wait until we were back in Nashua? Hell with that. There was this silly sense in me that I had to do it as soon as possible—something my dad and Uncle Joe would’ve called lust. Sure, whatever. I really didn’t care what it was. Just wanted to call Helen, and wanting something like that made me feel better, like there was a shield protecting me from all their shit making me less there somehow.
My dad made me carry the booze so he could smoke. I was pretty well pissed off by the time we got back to the Fortunate Rest Motel. The ‘U’ in ‘Fortunate’ was blinking on and off, and that helped me out a bit. It seemed funny—though not enough for me to explain it all to Dad when he asked what I was grinning about.
Uncle Joe looked out at the road as he smoked a cigarette and paced back and forth in front of the window in Room 63.
“You get us something good, Freddy? Hope you didn’t listen to your son and get those wine coolers.” He grinned at that.
“That’s right, Uncle Joe,” I said. “But I’m still waiting for you to return the ones I shoved up your ass two months ago. Still getting off on them, or what?”
Uncle Joe made a face of mocked shock. “What a naughty boy you got there, Freddy. He’s getting better with the comebacks.”
“Yeah, he’s a wiseass,” my dad said. “Want a beer there, Joe?”
Uncle Joe left his eyes on me for another second and a half.
* * *
Sometimes, that first beer still seems like a choice. By the time we left Room 63, I’d had three. Generosity abounds when they’re trying to turn you into an alcoholic. Phone calls, forget it. Want beer? Hell, sure—and then they’ll even take you out to a bar.
We left Nora and set off. When the bouncer at the first bar refused my entrance, we went to another place, which wouldn’t let Uncle Joe in because he was wearing sneakers. My dad had to hold Uncle Joe back from the bouncer.
“That faggot would’ve loved Dad,” Uncle Joe said, itching to go back to the no-sneakers bar. “Fucking asshole never wore nothing but those damned shit-kickers.”
By which he meant Grandpa Beldon’s cowboy boots. You see, “dead” never implied “respectable” to my family. Some people had to die, and more than a few were better off that way. I never really knew my grandfather. Just knew that he screwed up Dad and Uncle Joe to the point where they never talked. Well, they never talked to him. They always talked about him. I knew the whole story. How my grandfather used to have a constant supply of younger women. How he’d spend all his time and money on the other women and their kids instead of his own. In one of my father’s wiser drunken moments, he said my grandfather had never managed to fully become a man. My father’s reason was that Grandpa Beldon would see a young girl on the street and think of her as a sex object rather than a daughter-type figure.
“The man was all fuck and no nurture,” my dad had said. “A cowboy, maybe, but not a father.”
Uncle Joe spat on the sidewalk and moaned. “I can’t believe the asshole’s finally dead. You know how long it’s been since he offered to send me any money? Fourteen goddamned years!”
The fourth bar let us all in. It’s impressive to see the swift change from a drunk, father-hating man into a drunk, chauvinist pig. Uncle Joe walked through the doorway, and a glow washed over his angry face, the doorframe siphoning off his former venom.
“Look at all the sexy babies in here, Freddy,” Uncle Joe said, taking his place at the bar. “Jasper, get up here beside me. I need your opinion on something. Barman, three pints of Bud, por favor.”
I did as I was told. We sat around the side of the bar, as near as possible to the end. A pay phone beckoned from the wall on Uncle Joe’s right. I sat on his left. He lit a cigarette. Nodded his head to the Black Sabbath song playing from the jukebox across the room.
“Fucking good music. I don’t understand the shit they come out with now. This is where it’s at,” he said.
“Bunch of whiny brats singing today,” Dad said. “Staring at their shoes.”
“Amen,” said Uncle Joe. “You like this music, Jasper?”
He slapped me on the back. “You’re an all right kid. I’m glad you’re here. So listen, I have to ask you: You think a woman on the face of the earth ever made a guy happy?”
I thought of Helen and didn’t say anything. Raised my eyebrows and drew my coat tighter around me. Beers came. I caught the look the bartender gave me, but I kept focused on Uncle Joe.
“No,” Uncle Joe said. “And I’ll tell you why. It’s because they don’t want to make any of us happy. They just want to run us into the ground. I don’t expect you to understand this yet, but the secret is to beat them to the punch. Sooner or later, it comes down to who goes for the jugular first. Know what I mean?”
I nodded but didn’t agree. Kept trying to hang on to the image of Helen in the bleachers in the school gym. Just the two of us, talking because she’d wanted to. Such a surprise. I imagined her now reading a book in a well-made bed, surrounded by stuffed animals, listening to quiet music on a small radio beside her. Uncle Joe punched me in the shoulder.
“Take my ex-wife for example,” Uncle Joe said, like it was some great shock he’d bring her up. “She had me convinced, yeah? I was all in love, doing all the right shit. Wasn’t I, Freddy?”
“You were,” my dad said.
“And what happened? She fucking divorces me! Breaks it off, steals my money, heads off to Tennessee with some goddamned lawyer.”
He was leaning in really close to my face. My natural reflex was to back away, but I knew that Uncle Joe just would’ve come closer. He was trying to read me. Trying to make sure I was listening and buying his shit. A part of me didn’t want to make him feel stupid, so I made my face stay where it was. Even if I knew he was about as dense as they come, there was still no point in pissing him off.
“I don’t know,” he continued, backing away slightly to take a drag on his cigarette. “Point is, you have to be cruel to be kind, because the only one you can look after and take care of is you. You reading me here? Because I’m only gonna say this once.”
I was full of hope that I’d only hear this sermon preached once. Knew I’d probably get at least one encore.
“So we’ve got a mission tonight, Jasper. Know what that mission is?”
I shook my head. Braced myself.
“Tell him, Freddy.”
My father leaned in across the bar. “The three of us are all going to get a nice, round, juicy piece of ass. All of us.”
Uncle Joe smiled and blew smoke out at the bar. He punched me again in the shoulder, this time a little harder. “How’s that sound? Pretty goddamned good, yeah? You been laid, Jasper?”
“Yeah,” I said, surprising myself with the defensive tone of my voice.
“How many times?”
I faltered in my lie. Just for a second. “Three times.”
“Three times, huh? Not bad. Freddy, you know your kid was screwing?”
“Should. Goddamned whores make so much damned noise it’s hard to sleep nights.” My dad winked at me then. Uncle Joe noticed and gave me a nudge.
“Well, then, you’re going to get laid again tonight. Sound good?”
I nodded. “Sure.”
“Jesus fuck, Freddy,” Uncle Joe said. “He don’t look all that excited, does he?”
“Think he’s a skeptic, Joe. Doesn’t believe you.”
“Guess I’d better get to work convincing him.”
“Guess you’d better.”
Uncle Joe slipped from the barstool. “Allow me,” he said and went toward the other end of the room.
I looked at the exposed pay phone. I turned to my dad. He smiled at me.
“Going to be a good night, kiddo.”
“Could I make a phone call, do you think?”
It was such a desperate move. I wasn’t even thinking about how Helen’s family would’ve reacted to a phone call from a lovesick, boozed-up sixteen-year-old kid at midnight, who just couldn’t wait until normal business hours to proclaim his slurred passion.
“Just want to call a girl,” I said.
“Ah, so that’s it. Well, I don’t think you need to waste any money on that. We’ll have all the ass you could want in just a little while. Relax, have a beer. You don’t look drunk enough yet.”
He put his arm around my shoulders.
“You’re my son, Jasper,” he said. “I love you like a brother. Whatever you want, just say the word. Your Uncle Joe and I got you covered. Want a smoke?”
I hesitated for a second, but then I thought better and took one. He lit it. I coughed. My dad grinned. I waited. Stared at the burning tip.
* * *
Eventually, Uncle Joe flagged us over to where he stood between three women. Pale faces and gray eyes, the mascara making them look even more disfigured and uninteresting. They looked shrunken, despite a general heftiness—like partially deflated balloons.
“Jasper, Freddy, I want you to meet Vicky, Gina, and Diane,” Uncle Joe said. “They’re out for the night because their old men don’t know what they got. Isn’t that right, girls?”
“That’s right,” Vicky said. The other two smiled at me and my dad.
“So this must be Jasper, huh?” Gina said. At about thirty, she seemed the youngest. I stared at her navel. It rode a wave of flesh that curled around the waistband of her cutoffs. A smiley-face patch, smeared with mustard, had been stitched above the right-hand pocket. “Your Uncle Joe here’s been telling us all about you. Good student, he says.”
“That’s right,” my dad said. “Smarter than all of us combined. Just applied to Harvard.”
“No shit,” Vicky said. She shook her head. “That’s fantastic. Glad to know someone’s doing something good with their life.”
It goes without saying that I’d applied nowhere fancier than the local pizza place. But I smirked. It was somewhat fun to play the part of the genius that I wasn’t.
After that, a motion was made and passed to head back to the motel where the liquor was cheaper. During the long walk, Gina, tummy rolling, stuck beside me. Uncle Joe waltzed up the sidewalk, his hand on Vicky’s ass. My father had his arm around draped around Diane.
When we got back to the motel, my dad told me to take Nora for a walk. Would’ve been okay if Gina hadn’t followed me out. She smoked a cigarette against the wall of the motel while Nora took her sweet old time.
“Pretty dog,” she said. “Could use a bath, though, huh?”
True. But then, Nora had needed a bath ever since Uncle Joe brought her home. I couldn’t remember Nora clean. Always dirty. Always reeking of Uncle Joe’s apartment.
“Pretty cool to get in a bar at your age, huh?” Gina said. “How old are you? Eighteen? I remember being eighteen. Christ, we all went everywhere.”
“Sixteen, Jesus!” Gina whistled. “Your dad and uncle are pretty cool guys, huh?”
“Your dad’s a sexy man. Looks like you boys were cut from good stock, huh?” She took a step toward me, smiling in sync with the patch on her shorts. I held Nora’s leash and tried to focus all my attention on the dog. Then Gina took another step, and I saw her hand move toward me.
“Just shut up, would you?” I said. She was worse than the fucking dog. Nora took a piss and I pulled her back up the stairs to the room. Gina followed, graciously not saying another ignorant word and keeping her distance.
Back inside, Uncle Joe cuddled with Vicky, and my father stretched out beside Diane. Any chance of a halfway decent night’s sleep dissolved.
“Gina, come sit,” Uncle Joe said. He moved over. She sat on his right, Vicky on his left. The TV was on. They were watching late-night HBO. I didn’t know the movie. Two people were having sex—that much was clear. I took a seat on the floor in front of my father’s bed. He tapped my head with his dirty toes.
“Get up here, Jasper. Stop being so grumpy.”
They made space for me beside Diane. We were all on top of the covers to begin with. It didn’t last. Diane said she was cold, and my dad worked his blankets out to allow her to crawl beneath.
“Jasper, go get us some ice,” my father said.
I got off the bed, crossed the room, and headed for the door. Trying not to look. On my way out, I caught a glimpse of my uncle between the two other women. Vicky already had her shirt off, and Uncle Joe’s hands were working on unhooking her bra. I left the room, out of breath by the time the door closed again.
I realized I hadn’t grabbed the ice bucket. Fuck it, though. They hadn’t wanted ice, and even if they had, I certainly wasn’t going to be their errand boy. I walked down the carpeted stairwell, through the lobby, and out the front door. On my way to California, I guess. I craved so much distance between myself and what was behind me. Couldn’t even think about it. Just had to go.
I came up on another pay phone. I took a seat on the grass beside it and looked across the road. There was a train station up a ways. I tried to think about other places. I’d never been to another place long enough to get a sense of it, so I thought about Nashua, once ranked one of the best towns in the United States, one of my teachers had said. I wonder if whatever magazine had said that had met us.
My arms were shaking. My legs stiffened as the cold air seeped through the fabric of my jeans and my thin shirt. I wanted to be in bed back home.
I stood up and leaned against the pay phone. I rested my head against the cold metal. Looked at the silver numbers, the black receiver. Looked at the little blurb that had that big 35-cents-for-a-local-call thing. Too bad I wanted long distance. I couldn’t even call a cab. I stared at the eye-level text and felt like I was drowning.
But I couldn’t let myself think like that, so I said fuck it and walked back to the motel. When I crept through the door, I closed my eyes but couldn’t close my ears. Heard my father moaning “Aw, Gina, yeah. Uh-huh, just like that,” sounding like the asshole from the movie they’d been watching earlier. I went in the bathroom, closed the door, and crept into the corner beside the toilet. I heard a whimper. Finally noticed Nora in the dark corner beside the tub. She raised her head for a moment and then went to sleep. I tucked my jacket behind my head and tried to do the same.
I waited for morning—awake, aware, and bored of my racing heart.
* * *
The light brightened in the window above my head. I really hate the sun. It never makes me feel good. And that fucking bathroom! Out of all the hotels and motels I’ve ever stayed in, that was the only one that ever had a window in the bathroom. What ridiculous bad luck. It was a gray morning, and those are the worst for me. I feel the price tag of everything. I look at my clothes, my skin, and I think of what it all cost and how the dream my mother had had a long time ago must have been so different. In that motel, it was all gray, cold light—light that would come from a corpse’s hide. I didn’t even have a watch to check the time and chart my progress toward the end of it all.
It was this curiosity that finally got the better of me. I opened the door to the bathroom and went out into the room. Didn’t see a clock, so I went around the bed to see if my dad had taken off his watch and left it on the nightstand.
Gina was gone. One down. Thank God it was her. I didn’t want to see her face with our recent history crusted on her eyes. Uncle Joe slept with Vicky, who drooled on the pillow. Uncle Joe had his mouth hanging open like he was singing a song.
My dad’s watch was where I thought it would be. I checked the time. It was 10:09. My dad was snoring on Diane’s naked breasts.
His wallet was beside his watch. When I set the Timex down, I picked up the worn billfold. He had a ten, a five, and three ones. I took the five, put the wallet back, and walked out into the hall.
There were phones in the lobby, but I didn’t have any coins. The kid behind the desk looked at me funny when I asked for change, so I told him to forget it. I walked until I found a convenience store. The world moved around me. Other people seemed translucent and unreal, distortions of an unrested head.
I bought a thing of orange juice and asked for all quarters back, no bills please and thank you. The big man behind the counter didn’t want to do it. I could tell. He made the change, though. I like to think of him as a saint for that.
The pay phone was on the side of the building. I took out Helen’s number. Opened the orange juice and drank some. It tasted good, like sunshine from a better place. I sat down. Took the change out of my pocket and looked it over. Old and new coins, all silver. I finished the orange juice and set the bottle on the ground beside me, then stood up and faced the phone. I took the receiver from the cradle and dialed the number.
“This call requires a minimum deposit of two dollars and seventy-five cents.”
I deposited all the coins and closed my eyes, turned away from the phone, and fell against the concrete wall of the store. The phone on the other end rang. She would be getting out of bed, I thought, the light in her bedroom clear and bright—not from the fickle sun, but from the inner exuberance of every object around her. The top of my head lifted off its hinges.
I hung up. Replaced the receiver in the cradle, the black plastic slipping against my moist palm.
It’s not what you think. You think I was a coward—that that was why I couldn’t do it. But it’s not like that. I hung up because I couldn’t bear the thought of talking to Helen Plum. I couldn’t handle liking her anymore. Didn’t want her eyes on me. Didn’t want her ears to be polluted by the wretched whine of my voice. Hated the thought of hearing myself talk to her.
I left the rest of the coins and the orange juice bottle on top of the phone and went back to the motel.
* * *
Nora was waiting behind the door when I got back. I took her outside again, and when she finished, we went back upstairs to the room. She was hungry. I could tell. The way she looked at me. Nuzzled me. Just like always. But I had no food. I cursed myself for leaving the money. I could have bought her something if I’d been thinking of anything except myself, but now I was too tired to steal more money and walk back to the convenience store.
I went into the bathroom. The dog followed me. I turned on the light to get rid of all the gray. I saw the unused motel soap and shampoo, and I remembered what Gina had said the night before about the dog. I remembered how cold I’d been to Gina. She’d smiled at me. She’d thought there’d been something possible. But what? I was sixteen. It dawned on me then that perhaps she’d wanted to be the instructive older woman in my life. A saucy little adventure on my way to manhood. But I’d denied her. For a moment, I felt really awful about my earlier angst. But whatever. She’d had her fun, hadn’t she? I put it behind me.
I poured Nora a bath, not knowing if dogs preferred hot or cold. I made it hot. That’s what I’d been taught to do, and if it was good enough for me, it was good enough for Nora.
I picked her up and put her in the tub. She resisted for a while, but I told her to calm down. “Everything will be fine,” I said. “Everything is great.” A noisy eighteen-wheeler rolled by outside, and it freaked her out. I spoke as soothingly as I knew how.
She settled down, and I did the best I could with what was there. I rubbed the soap into her fur, getting a thin lather. Then the shampoo. Then the soap again. Then the rest of the shampoo.
I used every towel on the rack to dry her. I wanted her to shine. She seemed happy while I dried her off. She kept licking my face. I put up with it.
After throwing the last hand towel into the pile of dirty, wet towels, I bent close to Nora’s neck and smelled her.
Under the layer of new soapy-smell, all the old filth was still there. She seemed happy enough, but I could still smell it. All of it. Close to the skin, ground into the pores.
I stood up and looked into the tub. The soap seemed to have never existed. The water was a gray murk with bits of dirt floating on the surface. Transfixed for a moment, I tracked the path of a tiny, busted twig.
Other stories have better endings, but not mine. Some people probably end up standing up to their fathers. Not me. I wasn’t built for confrontation, and that morning wasn’t the day that things magically changed. That was the morning I didn’t call Helen Plum.
Instead, I looked down at my Aerosmith shirt, which had originally been my cousin Ray’s, and I took it off. I kicked my nine-dollar sneakers into the corner. I took off my dirty, torn jeans, my socks with the holes in the heels, and my cheap boxer shorts with the crotch falling out from too much wear and tear. I shed it all.
Then I stepped into the bathtub still filled with the filth of the dog, sat down, laid back, plugged my nose and closed my eyes, and I went under. I held my breath as long as I could.