What Was That One?
He could hear Erin 's voice in his head. Well of course your eyes are bothering you, dummy. These lenses were monthlies. The receptionist at the optometrist told him, throw the pair you're wearing away the first of every month. You get a six-month supply and come back for a check-up when it's done. Perry had been using this pair, the last of the six, for almost a year.
He turned onto Loretto Street, slowed to a stop and put the car in park in front of some twin homes. A wide tree-lined Northeast Philadelphia block, just like the blocks he and his friends had gotten high on in their teens. Some other piece of shit car, joints passed around, homemade jungle juice in a washed-out soda two-liter. Plenty of school nights, tests the next day. That never stopped them. That was over a decade ago, well over.
He fished around in the glove box for his eye drops, finding the half-ounce bottle close to empty. He leaned his head back, squeezed a couple fat drops into each eye, held his lids shut, letting the liquid cover the lens. When he lowered his head, the excess streamed down his face. He wiped it away with his sleeve. Every time he performed this ritual, which was getting to be often, a thought would come to him. Why are you wiping the streaks away? So some passerby might see and think they were tears, so what? He always gave in, telling himself, some other day. Some time in the future, he would be strong enough in spirit to not give a shit if a total stranger thought he'd been crying.
A police cruiser pulled up alongside him and the cop behind the wheel turned his square head in Perry's direction. He felt his heart rate increase, though he knew he'd done nothing wrong. Leftover nervousness from those pot-filled high-school nights perhaps. Or all those nights just a few years back, when he'd had his little excursion into the world of heroin. His junkie year. Driving back from North Philly, ten or twelve little blue bags wrapped in a rubber band and hid in the same glove box he'd just been rooting through.
The cop was saying something, a mouth moving silently in the middle of a huge, pink face.
“We've both got our windows up, bozo,” Perry said from behind his smile. As the cop drove on, he gave the finger to the taillights, down low, below the steering wheel.
He had no idea what that had been about, but was glad he hadn't had to find out. Still, it nagged at him. What, you weren't allowed to pull over for two seconds on a residential street without arousing suspicion? Fine, this wasn't exactly the Badlands, but surely there were more important things to deal with. Shitty little half-eighth drug deals, bozos beating their old ladies, kids spraying graffiti.
His cell phone buzzed in the cup holder, banging against the plastic wildly. Perry rolled down the window and lit a cigarette, letting the phone finish its seizure. It would be Erin. Either her or the pizza shop, bugging him to get back. He suddenly felt winded, like he'd run a few blocks. The world outside his window looked painted, unreal. He blinked, trying to wipe the quality away.
The phone showed three missed calls and four texts. The calls were all the restaurant. The texts: two from Elaine, the counter girl, and two from Erin. When the hell had these all come in? Looking at the time on his dashboard sent his mind into a red confusion. It was a quarter to six in the evening. He was sure it had been about four-thirty when he'd just now delivered an order to the apartment building on Summerdale Ave. How long had he been sitting there? Had he passed out or something?
He read two of the texts, one from each sender. Elaine: WTF where R U??? Erin: So, you EVER gonna call me back or what?Yes, I was being a bitch. Remember what an asshole you were being the other day? Call me. I love you.
Ned, his boss, was going to read him the riot act for going AWOL for an hour during the dinner rush. Perry clenched and unclenched his free hand, thinking. The schedule must be getting to him. Three ten-hour shifts a week delivering pizza, two long nights tending bar at the pub in Mayfair. He was overworked, needed a night or two's rest. He tossed the butt out the window and put it in drive, trying to prepare some sort of explanation.
When he pulled up in front of the pizza shop, he kept the motor running in case he had to run right back out with another delivery. He grabbed the empty warmer bag from his passenger seat, sighed, and hopped out of the car.
Elaine was ringing up two teenage boys, a couple years younger than her, both of them gawking at her huge breasts that looked ready to pop from her low-cut blouse. She widened her eyes at him as he darted behind the counter to sign back in on the computer.
As they stood shoulder to shoulder, she said sarcastically, “Thanks for showing up.”
“I don't know what the hell happened.”
“Boy are you lucky Ned had to run to the soda distributor. We got two two liters of Coke and we're totally out of Pepsi.”
“Fucking moron. Why can't he ever keep track of this shit? Great time to run out of soda, Friday evening.”
“Yup. He's been gone over an hour himself.”
Ned was probably mid-thirties, a little older than Perry. He was an Arab immigrant; Perry wasn't sure from what country. Not that he was particularly interested. He had his own worries. Ned was a nice enough guy, and for the most part he left Perry alone. Just do your friggin' job, that's all the guy cared about.
Perry sidestepped past the pizza oven and the grill to the sinks. He splashed some cold water on his face.
“What, you get lost, white boy?” one of the two Mexican cooks called to him. They both laughed.
“That's half-white boy, holmes,” Perry answered. “My Ilocano grandpop was browner than you.”
“Well, you sure talk like a white boy.”
“Delivery up,” Elaine called from the front. “Don't forget to check the slip for sodas,” she added as he took the two bulky paper bags down from where they sat, warming atop the oven.
He spread the pizza bag out at one of the empty booths. As he was cramming the food into it, Charles came in the door, just back from a run of his own. Perry's absence had surely made things hectic for the other driver. He raised his open hands and shrugged.
“What can I say? I'm sorry, bro.”
Charles was a tall black guy in his early fifties. He had a little gray at the temples, more than a little paunch under the t-shirts he always wore too tight. He sported a thick-rimmed pair of molester glasses that he'd probably had for years. He was cool, didn't give a fuck about the little shit, stayed out of all the drama and restaurant politics. When it was slow, he sat at an empty booth and read his prayer books. The wiseass kids that hung around the place, Charles was the one guy none of them would look at cross-eyed, though no one had ever heard him so much as raise his voice.
“Hey, young-star,” he answered, tossing his empty warmer onto a table. “You ain't gotta apologize to me. I made ten bucks in tips while your ass was doing whatever it was doing.”
“Good, I'm glad.”
“Don't get lost again,” Elaine said as Perry was exiting. He turned and they exchanged smiles. Perry held the eye contact until the girl turned red and looked down. He laughed and continued out the door.
“Oh, playboy,” Charles called to him, making him duck his head back in the doorway. The older driver had already set his huge frame in one of the booths.
“What's up?” Perry asked.
“When you get back, I want to tell you something.” He smiled, but his tone had a serious quality Perry couldn't remember having heard from him before.
“Tell me what?”
“It can wait. When you get back.”
His cell was again having a fit in the cup holder. It would be Erin, he was sure. He pulled over on Hartzel Street, half a block down from the shop, another quiet residential block.
You were a dick too. This is not just me, the text read. He lit a cigarette and called her. It rang and rang as Perry shook his head and exhaled. She had just texted him and now she can't answer?
“Hey, baby. Sorry, it's a little busy tonight,” he said to her voicemail. “You never seem to realize that, hon. I'm at work.” It crossed his mind to tell her about the missing time, but he decided against it. “Look,” he stammered. “I was a dick, you're right. I love you, baby. Let's not fight anymore. Call me back when you can, but I might not be able to answer.”
He'd been with Erin for two years, met her at a christening, of all places. One of the waitresses at the pub where he tended bar had got knocked up and quit. She was always kind of a surly bitch, and nobody much missed her. Months of no contact, and she invites the entire crew to the baby's christening. Maralyss, the owner's wife, insisted they attend. She and her husband couldn't, some lame excuse, but she wanted them all to show the flag or some nonsense.
A hot, early spring day, the small yard of a Port Richmond row home. Erin was holding her precarious plate of barbecue and chatting with a couple other women. She caught him checking her out and smiled.
She was a cousin of the bozo who'd impregnated the waitress. One of their early bonding jokes would be how Perry couldn't stand the baby's mother, his connection to the christening, and she couldn't stand the father, her connection. Another thing they bonded over was they were both in recovery from opiate addiction. It turned out they both attended meetings at the church on Oxford, though thus far on different nights.
Erin was a decade younger than him, in her early twenties. He'd usually gone for the buxom, curvaceous type. She was the exact opposite. Petite, perky little B-cups. She was smart and funny, and he was hooked by the second date. He had to stop himself from telling her he loved her the first time they had sex. She said it a week later; wrote it, actually, in lipstick on his bathroom mirror while he slept.
He had a small but nice one-bedroom off Algon Ave. Erin still lived at home with her father and stepmother, but soon she was staying with him four nights out of the week. Your swinging bachelor pad days are over, buddy, she would joke. I'm the last chick who's sleeping in that bed. He would laugh and answer that was more than fine by him.
They were both fiery people, had always argued here and there, but the past few months it had been more fighting than loving. A lot of it was financial shit. She was there all the time, and expected to be taken out on his nights off, but it never occurred to her to help out with the bills or pick up a check. He kept the resentment to himself, would instead pick a fight over the way she stacked the dishes in the cabinet or some dumb thing. It wasn't like she was holding out on him, he knew. She waited tables a few shifts a week at a coffee shop, barely keeping herself in smokes, hair products, and bus fare. She was back in school after a long absence, taking classes toward her GED. She wasn't the type who could handle a lot, and Perry knew she was already feeling stretched thin.
He'd tossed his cigarette out the window and was about to throw the car into drive when his phone buzzed again. Erin calling back. He pressed accept.
“Hey, baby. What's going on?”
As his mind fought to wrap itself around whatever this was, it seemed he'd been allowed a fraction of a syllable of her reply. Already he knew that he'd never hear her voice again, though he had no idea where he was or how he'd come to be there. He'd answered his phone, and felt himself ripped away, sucked through a swirling tunnel of white grayness, to be deposited here in this dark room. Thoughts of returning to her were met with an emptiness that hit like a punch in the gut.
He was lying on a carpet, naked, his left leg on a sofa. He hunched up on his elbows, and then to his knees, cautiously. Whose place was this? Had he been taken hostage? He crawled to a table and flicked on the lamp that sat on it, somehow knowing the knob was on the lamp's base, facing the wall.
The room was familiar. Facts were arriving, spreading, like streams of inky, different colored liquids shot into the meat of his brain from countless needles. This was his apartment. A different apartment. He thought of Erin again and the punch was ten times harder. His mind clenched, not wanting to know.
He lived in Atlantic City now. He worked as a bartender at a restaurant a block off the boards. Two years had passed in an instant. He paced the apartment, turning on the overhead light as he entered the wide kitchen. He recognized it all, but that only increased his confusion.
He fell to his knees on the tile floor. What had happened was fighting its way into his consciousness. He begged God to let him wake up, to let this be a dream, though he knew it wasn't. Just a moment ago he'd been sitting in that old car, reading her text—but the truth of this new reality was beyond question.
He made it back to the couch and sat down. Not allowing the memory was like holding an impossibly heavy weight. Whimpering, he put his head back and let it all arrive.
The day she died, he had worked a double at the pizza shop. He'd left her sleeping in his bed. He could see her there still, lying on her stomach, the top sheet covering only her ass and one shoulder, like a billowy punk-rock gown.
At six that evening she'd texted him that she was on her way to Marta's place, adding a request that he please not be angry. Marta was a girl she'd been close with in her party days and had distanced herself from when she'd gotten clean. Perry had met her once, hated her instantly, her and her scumbag boyfriend. He'd run with some real losers himself, but the Erin he knew and loved—how had she even known a piece of shit like that?
Marta had called out of the blue, begging to hang out, Erin explained in a follow-up text. Some big fight with the boyfriend had her spinning her wheels. Erin felt obligated. Just be careful, Perry wrote back, you know what she is.
Don't worry, her final text said, we're just gonna get coffee and talk. I'm not gonna do anything.
He'd gotten the rest of the story from Marta herself. Not at the funeral—where she wept like a widow in a movie, louder even than Erin's parents or brother—but a few days later when he'd practically kicked her apartment door in. The boyfriend had been lying on the couch. Perry let him get to his feet before knocking him back down, where he stayed. He grabbed Marta by the scruff of her hoodie and pushed her against the wall, denting the shitty paneling. She let out a wet scrunching sound as she broke down, again sounding like a movie character. The big confessional I'm so fucked up scene.
They had gone and scored. Erin had resisted at first, had talked of letting Perry down, not wanting to lose him. But in the end she gave in. In fact, when Marta's regular connection didn't respond to repeated calls, Erin texted a guy in North Philly she used to know. He probably wouldn't even still be around, she had said, as long as it'd been. But the guy immediately called back, happy to hear from her. They met him at a gas station on Lehigh, bought ten bags, two thrown in for free. Erin's tolerance being not what it once was...
Oh, god, I miss her so much, Marta cried, leaning forward as if she expected him to take her in his arms.
How long did you wait til you called a fucking ambulance, bitch?
It had taken every drop of restraint to leave that apartment without choking the life out of her.
He'd left Philadelphia not long after. Everything he touched in the old apartment held a memory of her. Every place he went, drove past, every store he went in.
Wiping his eyes, he looked around his new place. It was smaller than his old place, but nicer in a way, more modern-looking. A large living room/bedroom with two couches, one of which he knew to be a sofa bed. The kitchen was through the archway. The feeling of familiarity was white-hot fog. The fact that he'd survived, had gone on, felt like betrayal. Oh, god, baby. I'm sorry. I had to, I had to. He closed his eyes and prayed to her, vowing not to forget. But even as he spoke the words in his mind, he could feel the pain lessening. He jumped up, as if the action could halt it. It was like killing her over again, letting her recede. He brought her face to mind, her laugh, her naked body under his. The remoteness wouldn't stop, spreading in him like poison gas, not taking her away completely but relegating her to the past, leaving an old scar where a fresh cut should be. No, baby, no. I won't. You were just here, you were alive and just—
The squeak of pipes from behind the closed bathroom door. The shower turning off.
Frantically, he scanned the apartment. Everywhere was a sign of what he already knew to be true. Atop the entertainment center sat a jar of potpourri. Candles rested on every table, throw pillows on the couches. He'd been gripping one of the pillows, he realized, and dropped it like it was on fire. These were all things he'd never think of to buy himself. A woman's touch.
Knowledge of a new person was forming. He tried to keep the guilt up, lashing himself with harsh, admonishing thoughts, but it was useless. This was his life now.
Nancy. She was moving around in the bathroom, singing to herself, playfully complaining about the way he kept something or other. He remembered now why he was naked. They had just made love. A quickie on the unopened sofabed. He knew how she felt, how she smelled, could feel her legs around him. He tried to hate her, tried to make her a co-conspirator in the erasure of Erin.
He'd met Nancy at his job. She was a waitress. They'd been dating for eight months, progressing to the point where she stayed over more nights than not. She was closer to his age, tall and curvaceous, far more his type, with red hair she kept short in the back but with stylish long strands in front. She was calling to him now from behind the closed door.
“You know I can't hear you, baby,” he called back, instinctively.
The familiarity of it all again struck him, making his vision both sharp and fuzzy, like being bugged out on coke. He knew every inch of the body behind the door, that pale, freckled beauty that had come into his life and his apartment and saved him. Healed him.
The bathroom door was opening. Memories were sprouting with maddening speed. Their first shift together at the restaurant. How he had felt drawn to her, wooed her with some reserve of charm he hadn't known he possessed. Their first date, Dylan at the Borgata. Their trip to France, paid for by Nancy with money she'd received from an automobile accident. Their first Thanksgiving, when she'd come with him up to the city, stayed at his parents' place. And her coming with him to visit Erin's grave. She had soothed him as he knelt and wept openly. No jealousy. Not at all like Erin would've acted, had it been some other dead girlfriend.
She was coming toward him now, biting her lip. Her hair was up in a towel, turban style, another towel across her torso, held in place under the armpit in that magical female way. It didn't quite cover her vagina. That gorgeous hair, red and soft. Fire Bush, he sometimes called her. He knew the feeling of it against his cheek.
“Look at you,” she said, scanning him with her soft brown eyes. “Mmmm. I just showered and you're gonna make me get all sweaty again.”
She ran a hand across his chest, down his stomach.
He opened his mouth to speak—
and she was gone. He was riding in a car. Driving it, in fact, streaming down a highway, just entering the mouth of a tunnel. He gripped the wheel, his chest rising, forcing his brain to sharpen. The lights on the wall of the tunnel surrounded him and whizzed past his windows like spaceships in a Star Wars battle scene.
The young girl strapped into the passenger seat tapped her finger on her window, mumbling numbers in a robotic tone which clearly amused her, making a game of counting the lights. Perry smiled, taking her in in quick glances. He'd done the same thing as a child.
He felt more powerful, stronger, but a certain slowness could be sensed in his muscles. He had a bit of a belly now, rock hard though it was, pushing against the steering wheel when he shifted in his seat. Something has gone wrong, he said inside, as if complaining to some celestial movie-theater manager. This is all going by too fast.
The facts were arriving fully formed this time. He was getting used to it.
The girl was his daughter, Violet. She was ten.
Along with the knowledge came the emotional stuff, the attachment. He wanted desperately to pull over somewhere and take her in his arms and squeeze her, this girl he had never seen a minute and a half ago. It was all he could do to keep his eyes on the road and the other cars. Each time he was able to look to her for a few seconds, he opened his eyes wide, trying to make them more than eyes, scooping up all he could.
She had dark brown, almost black hair, same as he'd had as a kid. She was a chubster, cute as could be, thick shoulders and a bit of a tummy showing from her tank top. He laughed and forced his eyes back to the road.
“What's so funny, bub?” she asked, tapping her curled finger on his shoulder.
“You're just cute.”
“Uh-huh,” she said, pretending to be suspicious.
His next stolen glance gave him the gift of eye contact and a shared grin. He could see himself in her, especially the almond-shaped eyes. But the shape of her face, her expressions—that was pure Nancy.
He clenched, though he knew the futility of trying to keep out the memories. One more look at Vi, he told himself. One more quick glance at the only girl who'd ever last, and then he'd let it in.
She had turned back to the window, watching the cars in the other lane, lazily pulling her gum out in a long strand and eating it back up.
“Don't do that, Vi,” he said, surprising himself at how much of a parent he sounded like. “It's gross.”
“No, it's not.”
“Yes, it is, goofball.”
She exploded with laughter, her belly shaking. Perry laughed too, asking her what it was about.
“That's what Mom calls me. Since when do you call me that? Mom calls me goofball.”
“Oh.” His chest hurt. Come on, a voice said, taunting him. Look at what you did, Perry. “I guess I heard her say it. Actually, I think I used to call you that, too.”
Back when you lived with them.
“I don't remember that.”
“Well, I did.”
“Say it again.”
“Why?” he asked, laughing.
Another precious moment of eye contact.
“I don't know. It's funny when you say it.”
Violet chuckled, not as excitedly as he'd expected, and turned back to the window.
Nancy, who had saved him, had set him right— He put a hand on his skull and rubbed, as if trying to massage the memory into the soggy earth of his brain and make it softer.
Together they had opened their own restaurant in Atlantic City, and then another, both big successes. They married, bought a nice rancher in Linwood. Images were floating like clouds at the top of his windshield. Violet swaddled in her mother's arms, then as a toddler, bouncing around the two of them like a pinball. Christmases, backyard birthday parties, a trip to Disney World. Nancy's long legs scampering through their darkened bedroom, to see if Vi was definitely asleep, then back to their big, cool bed, ready to receive him.
Now he had Violet on weekends and a few weeks in the summer. Nancy was remarried. He'd repaid her love by fucking one of their hostesses. A twenty-three-year-old who worked at their original place.
“Daddy, what was that one...that song we all used to sing? From that cartoon movie?”
“Hmm. I'm not sure,” he answered, turning his head slightly and tilting his ear to her, keeping his eyes on the taillights ahead.
“Oh, come on,” she said, plopping her arms into her lap. “You remember. That song?”
“If you can't remember, how can I?” he joked.
“You know.” She hummed a melody, a few mumbled half-words peppered in. “Remember?”
When Nancy had first confronted him, he denied it twenty times, like a piece of shit. And then, with a tone of self-righteousness, he finally said yes. They'd been standing in their bedroom one cold, drizzly morning, scream-whispering, arms flying around. Then the admission. Nancy sat on the bed, stunned, quiet. He gave her a look like, well, you asked for it.
Did he love her, this girl? That's all she wanted to know. She would've forgave him. Definitely. If he'd dropped to his knees and begged. Promised to never so much as talk to the girl again. Instead, he packed up. He—he left her. For that nothing, that twit, who was fucking one of the bartenders six months later. Well, it was six months later when he found out, anyway, and kicked her out of his new apartment.
Nancy had fought him on nothing, insisting only on primary custody. He could’ve probably kept the house if he'd decided to be a bastard about it. All the air was let out of her, it seemed. She removed herself from the restaurants, from his life. The bitch could have it all, she'd said. Don't be like that, he'd answered, still believing himself to have a future with the girl. Don't be like that? Had he really said that?
He reached over and stroked Violet's hair.
“How's your mother?”
“She's fine,” Violet answered, sounding as if she'd been sharing in his melancholy.
“How's Bruce?” he asked, a mocking tone for the new husband and stepfather.
“Stop it, Daddy.”
“What?” he responded, playing innocent.
Violet was pouting, but not her usual comic pouting. She lowered her eyes to her lap.
Perry took her hand, raised it to his mouth and kissed it. “Okay, Princess. I'm sorry. Okay? I'm sorry.”
“Okay,” she smiled, and then she laughed at his contrite face. “Okay! Daddy, you can't remember that song? ”
He exited the highway as if on auto-pilot, turning onto a wide four-lane street at the end of the ramp. Where the hell were they driving? Oh, right. The weekend was over. He was taking her home. Home.
“I'm sorry. It sounds familiar. It was in a movie?”
“Yes, a cartoon movie.”
“A television show or a movie-movie?”
“A movie. We used to sing it all the time.” She thought for a moment, raising her head upward, like Nancy always did. “Well, maybe it was a TV show.”
He could feel the change coming this time, like a great wind approaching from behind. He pleaded with it. Let him stay just a bit longer.
The only mercy he'd get was a red light. He stared at her face, trying to keep every centimeter.
“Whatchoo looking at, bub?” she asked.
Christmas, early evening. (Nancy always got Christmas Eve and the lion's share of Christmas Day.) Vi in her thirties, sitting on the couch, hands in her lap, smiling at her son as he sat on the rug, tearing into his presents. Mitch was twelve, young acting for his age. Perry worried about him, about kids messing with him. Things going good for you in school? he'd ask the boy, who'd give the standard preteen uh-huh. Perry would show him how to hold his arms, how to throw a combo. Somebody had to. The kid's old man, Vi's ex-husband, was a bozo of the lowest caliber: forty-something and already looked like an old man, currently living in a mobile home with some other drunk, doing odd jobs around Atlantic City. Mercifully, the guy didn't give enough of a shit about his kid to be a nuisance in their lives, or Perry'd probably be in jail for murder. When Violet had finally kicked him out, the piece of shit just slithered away. No child support, but that was okay. They had Perry, and he wasn't about to let them want for anything.
He was in his recliner, feet up, watching them both, but mostly watching his daughter watch her boy. She'd grown into a beautiful woman, built like her mother.
This jump, the facts all landed with him, no jolt at all—just a slight head rush, like taking too big a drag of a cigarette.
Brenda, his new lady-friend, buzzed around the room, scooping up discarded wrapping paper, making sure everyone had something to drink, cooing at every gift unwrapped. She was nervous, her first holiday with Perry's girl. She leaned over and kissed the top of his head on her way to the kitchen. He reached up to touch her hand but she'd already gone.
“Thanks, Pop-Pop,” Mitch was saying from the floor, holding up a pair of garish multicolored tennis shoes. “How'd you know which kind to get?”
“Pop knows what's up,” Violet answered, winking quickly at Perry.
He'd given her the cash a couple months back, told her to get the kid whatever he wanted.
“You're welcome, boy,” he said, answering his daughter's wink.
Mitch caught the exchange and shook his head, laughing. Sharp kid, like his mom.
I got Mitch out of it, Vi would say when talking about the obscene ridiculousness that had been her marriage. Perry understood the feeling. It had been maybe fifteen minutes since he was delivering pizza in Northeast Philadelphia, a man decades younger, but his life was there for him to look back on. The one thing he had done, the one worthwhile thing, was made her. And even then, Nancy had done the real work.
But she wouldn't be who she is if you hadn't been her father, Brenda told him one evening the past summer. They'd been sitting on beach chairs in his backyard, having a couple drinks, looking out over the bay, and he'd started down Woe-Is-Me-I'm-Such-A-Fuck-Up Boulevard. He blamed himself for Vi's choice of a man. Brenda took his face in her hands, looking into his eyes in that earnest, corny but endearing way of hers, and told him to cut the crap. Violet's strength, her resilience, her attitude—at least from what Brenda had heard about the girl—all those were traits she got from him.
It felt classless to agree, even to himself, an insult to a woman he'd given more than her share of grief. But he knew it was true. Nancy could soothe, she could heal, but she wasn't a fighter. In the days when she'd run the restaurants with him, the lazier of the employees picked her out as a soft touch right away. She'd've had their footprints up and down her back if he hadn't been there. Nancy had come into his life and patched him up when he needed patching up. He would always love her. But when he allowed himself to set down his bag of guilt for a moment, he could see her as she was. She was a woman who walked through life sewing angels onto throw pillows. To hear her describe God, you'd think He was a retarded boy running up to strangers at a dinner party, kissing and hugging them hello all night. Perry's God, Violet's God—He gave you a club and said, This is how you get through.
Violet had been hell on wheels in her teens. She messed up, chose a loser, but when she'd had enough, she put her arms around her son and began again. She was a badger, like her old man. More so, even. She was a momma badger.
She saw him watching her and gave him another big smile. I don't know what this is, he thought. I don't know if it's a dream, if maybe I crashed the car on the way to that delivery, and I'm bleeding out on the sidewalk, this all a fantasy. I don't know and I don't care. That smile is enough.
He was old. It wasn't right that it should happen like this, all at once. To be you one moment, and the next to have the muscles of your arms and shoulders stretched out and flabby, as if someone had stood behind you and opened you up, grabbed hold and pulled—it wasn't fair. But he thought about Vi, this girl he knew for her lifetime and just these past moments. He knew what she would say about fair, how she'd quote his own words back to him.
She held the smile, looking away when Mitch called to her happily about a computer game Brenda had bought for him. Perry laughed to himself as his daughter expertly feigned excitement over kid stuff, the way he'd done with her so many times. She shot him another quick grin.
Brenda came back into the room with her camera. After beaming and saying you're quite welcome to Mitch's thank-yous, she began lining them up for various pictures. Mother and son on the couch. A hand-off to Violet for one of Perry and Brenda, him still in his armchair, her bending down, head awkwardly placed next to his.
“Now let me get one of father and daughter,” Brenda said.
Violet pushed the recliner to an upright position with a grunt, Mitch and Brenda laughing behind her. Perry's feet now on the floor, she sat in his lap, just like she'd always done as a child, her head on his shoulder like it was made to be there.
At least I did this, at least I did this. I helped make this person.
It was coming again, barreling toward them. Brenda sat on the loveseat, adjusting the camera. She scolded him playfully, telling him to smile. He was gone before he saw the flash.
Another car. Something big, like an SUV. He could see flashes of the second story of buildings. He was lying on the backseat, a girl squeezed in by his head, comforting him.
He knew this wouldn't be a long one. Things were winding up. One more, buddy. The final little scene before the credits.
“Talk to him, for Chrissakes,” a voice called from the driver's seat. “Stay with us, Pop-Pop. We're almost there.”
Mitch. Nineteen years old. He was solid, certainly closer to a grown man than Perry had been at that age. The girl was Mitch's girlfriend, a real sweetheart, but Perry couldn't locate her name. They'd met at college, he remembered, upstate PA. Mitch was home visiting, had brought her by to spend some time with the old man.
“I am,” she whispered desperately. Then to him, aiming for a calm tone, “Pop, we're taking you to the hospital. We're almost there. You're gonna be fine.”
There was no rush. It wasn't a big deal anymore. He tried to communicate it with his eyes, but he couldn't tell if she got it or not. She smiled sweetly, petting his gray hair.
She looked like Erin. A million pinpricks went off in his chest. Erin on the couch at his old apartment, her bare legs up on the coffee table. Chain-smoking, laughing at television. Cooking stuff up late at night. The smell of that kitchen surrounded him now, like a ghost that came wanting to be friendly but couldn't help making you sad.
I'm sorry, hon. I'm sorry I couldn't save you.
Mitch is on the phone with his mother. Telling her what hospital, telling her to hurry up. “Come on, Pop. Come on, Big Guy,” he says over his shoulder. “We're almost there.”
The girl's frantic, Mitch is frantic. So silly. It reminds him of a joke. A joke Violet used to love, would make him tell her over and over. He can hear her laugh, see those white teeth at the kitchen table. The first line won't quite come to him. God, what was it...what was it...