Monday, July 9, 2018

Long Drive Home, by Andrew Welsh-Huggins

Shayne made him pick up the tab at the diner they stopped at south of Charlotte, which was when Marty finally realized how much trouble he was in. Normally, Shayne fronted everything with a roll of cash as thick as the business end of a baseball bat, handing it to Marty with a wink right before Marty headed out, which was Shayne’s way of letting him know he had him covered, but also that he was good at counting bills. Marty always nodded and said thanks and made a production of pocketing the money with the care of someone in an old war movie receiving orders before heading across enemy lines. Because Shayne had it figured down to the dime—besides the cost of the product, how much Marty and them would need for gas, food and tolls from Columbus to West Palm Beach and back, plus two nights in the Oceanside at $49.99 a night, including cable. Forget about a hotel on the road. That wasn’t happening. There were three of them. They could just switch drivers.

Only not this time. This trip it was just Shayne and Marty. Marty didn’t know a thing about it until he showed up that night, sitting in the parking lot outside Shayne’s apartment, engine running, staying inside the van to keep warm because at thirty degrees the temperature was below normal for November. He didn’t want to make the trip—he never really wanted to go—but at least it would be warmer down south. He worried about his sister when he was away. Her and the twins. He worried about them all the time, to be truthful. But especially when he was gone.

“Let’s do this,” Shayne said, climbing into the van, Mountain Dew in hand. He tossed a backpack in the rear.

“Where’s Frankie? And Mike?”

“They’re not coming.”

“They’re not?”

“What I said. Just you and me, partner.”

“Why aren’t they coming?”

“I told ‘em not to.”

“Why?”

“Figured just you and me this time. Road trip buddies. Plus I need a vacation. Get some Florida titty for a change. Pinch me some southern fruit.” He opened and closed his thumbs and pointer fingers like crab claws. “This Ohio titty’s starting to suck. Ha—you get that?”

“But Frankie and Mike always—”

“Frankie and Mike always come because I tell ‘em to. This time I’m telling ‘em not to. Simple as that. Let’s go. One stop and we’re outta here.”

“What stop?”

“Enough with the questions. Just drive where I tell you.”

Marty followed Shayne’s instructions, not that he couldn’t guess where they were going. What was more important was figuring out was why it was just him and Shayne. Shayne never went with. Shayne gave him the cash and then him and Frankie and Mike spent a day driving and two days buying pills and another day driving back. He handed Shayne the pills and Shayne handed him his cut, and Marty handed half to Janney. His sister needed it a hell of a lot more than he did. And he wasn’t going to see her back . . . where she’d been. He promised himself that. Except—

Except the half just wasn’t enough.

They found the girl sitting on a porch a block off Sullivant. Thin as a discount store rake with torn jeans and a hoodie the color of winter mud. Her flat eyes said old woman; her face and body said late teens, tops. Shayne opened the back door and she got in and Shayne told Marty to drive around the corner and down an alley.

“You mind?” Shayne said when they stopped.

“Mind?”

“Little privacy?”

So Marty hopped out and stood a discrete distance away and smoked and tried not to listen to the sounds coming from the van. He winced when he heard the girl cry out in pain. He stood another minute and then the door opened and Shayne called him back. He stubbed out the cigarette and returned to the driver’s side and drove back around the corner and dropped the girl off.

“Pinched her titties,” Shayne said, taking a swig of soda. “Makes ‘em yell. They like it, you know?”

Marty didn’t respond. He drove up the street and found the entrance ramp to I-70 and got them on the road. He was thinking the girls Shayne got with didn’t like their titties pinched. He thought of Janney and the twins, and his shock learning she’d been working some of these same streets to make ends meet. Never again, he told her. So far, he’d kept his promise.

Most of all he wondered why Frankie and Mike weren’t coming. He had his suspicions, all right. But it wasn’t until they pulled into the all-night diner around 4 a.m. and Shayne ordered them plates of eggs and home fries and sausage and pancakes and toast and then when they were done told Marty to pay up while he went to the can, that he allowed himself to acknowledge the truth.

Shayne knew what Marty had been doing. And he was going to make sure it didn’t happen again. And if it didn’t happen again and Marty didn’t get the extra cash, Janney and the twins were up a creek.

***


Alex stared at the knife, not sure she was seeing right.

Black handle. Six inches of gleaming blade. Tip as sharp as a gator’s tooth. Lying next to the chopping block where Auntie Jodie left it after cutting up all those ribs last night. She was always slicing ribs, the meat thick and fat, and slow cooking them, and sitting at the picnic table outside tearing the flesh off the bones and wiping the sauce off her lips. Never asking Alex if she wanted any. Because Auntie Jodie only ever asked her two questions.

The first: “You ready?” The second: “How much you get?”

The knife. Just sitting there. Not like Auntie Jodie to leave it out.

Alex had grown accustomed to the questions. She’d grown accustomed to a lot of things. The slaps to her face and the cuffs to her ears. The pills she needed to keep her skin from itching and burning. Always feeling hungry. Yeah, a real routine.

What Alex wasn’t used to was being alone this long in the trailer’s tiny kitchen that smelled of cooked meat and spilled beer with Auntie Jodie gone and a knife sitting by itself next to the chopping block.

She reached out and touched the handle, half expecting it to disappear, like something with a spell on it. Like in a cartoon movie, one with princesses. With a good princess and a bad witch. But nothing happened. Outside Alex heard gulls crying as they circled the Dumpster and the sound of traffic on the highway headed for the Magic Kingdom and someone yelling to someone else to shut the hell up. But inside the trailer it was quiet. Alex hesitated only a moment. She reached out and wrapped her fingers around the knife handle. It felt cool to the touch. She drew it close, lifting the blade to her face and turning it flat until she could see her eyes reflected in the metal. Weary red eyes, smeared with mascara she never seemed able to wash off. She looked at herself for a whole minute. She realized she couldn’t remember the last time she’d gazed in a mirror. She lowered her hand and moved back to the table and slipped the knife into the drawstring bag where she kept the power bars and the make-up and the condoms Auntie Jodie gave her each morning.

“You ready?”

Auntie Jodie, barging through the door. Publix bags hanging from each enormous hand. She dropped them on the table in front of Alex and tried to catch her breath.

Alex said, “You talk to the guy?”

“What guy?”

“The guy. About the job.”

“Job?”

Anna. You said you’d talk to him.”

“Right. The job.” Auntie Jodie pulled ribs and jars of barbecue sauce from the bags. “Yeah, I did, as a matter of fact.”

“Really?”

“He’s interested. He just needs a little more. It’s a finder’s fee thing.”

“How much?”

“Five hundred.”

Alex’s heart sank. “Five hundred?”

“Not that much. Two, three days tops, right? No big deal.”

“The thing is, I was hoping—”

“Hoping what?”

“Hoping maybe I could take a day off.”

Alex’s head pitched backwards at the impact of the slap.

“A day off?” A wheeze separating each word. “How you gonna get the five hundred if you don’t work?”

“Dunno,” Alex said, rubbing her face where it stung the most.

Auntie Jodie dropped her off an hour later. The motel set back from the busy four-lane road. A single palm tree with brown-tinged leaves outside the office, like it survived a brushfire, but just barely.

“Got ‘em stacked up for you, so don’t be dilly-dallying,” Auntie Jodie said, tapping at her phone with fingers like sausages. “I’ll be around the corner, you need me.”

“Five hundred, and I’ve got the job?”

“Five hundred and you’ve got the interview. One thing at a time, all right?”

Alex nodded. She stepped back, drawstring bag in hand, watching Auntie Jodie pull away. When she was gone she walked across the parking lot and used the key to let herself into No. 43. She sat on the bed and waited for the first knock of the day.

She looked at her phone.

It was nine o’clock in the morning.

***


Shayne finally took the wheel on the other side of Savannah when Marty told him he couldn’t hold his eyes open any longer and was afraid they’d have an accident. Even then Shayne wouldn’t do it until they found a Parkers where Marty could buy Shayne more Mountain Dew. One of the twenty-ounce jobbers Shayne liked to guzzle in a single go. As if he had no regard for what he was drinking, or how it tasted . . .

How it tasted. The idea came to Marty as he drifted off to sleep. Because Shayne sure loved his Mountain Dew. It could work, he thought. It just might work . . .

“Let’s go.”

Marty jerked awake, staring wildly. They were parked at a rest stop. He looked at his phone. He’d slept only an hour, dead to the world the entire time.

“Wha—?”

“C’mon. My turn to sleep.”

Marty rubbed his face, cleared his throat, switched places with Shayne and pulled back on the highway.

Six hours later they were in West Palm Beach. The air was hot and heavy and smelled of salt and diesel and fish left in paper bags overnight. They piled into the room at the Oceanside off U.S. 1 and Marty collapsed onto the bed, face down.

“I’m gonna grab some chow,” Shayne said. “Want anything?”

“I’m good,” Marty said. In a minute he’d call Janney. He knew he should call someone else, but he couldn’t risk it, with Shayne around. “Grab some chow” Shayne’s way of saying, “I’ll be right back—don’t even think about going anywhere.”

Marty could think of nothing else.

Well, that and the Mountain Dew.

***


I want 2 b Anna.

The first thing of substance Alex texted to Auntie Jodie after they traded cell phone numbers. Feeling shy as she did. Because she’d never told her dream to anyone, even her sister. She couldn’t say for sure how many times she’d watched Frozen, but a fair estimate might be two hundred viewings. There’d been that stretch over the summer when the temperature in Jacksonville peaked at ninety-five plus for two or three weeks running, and all she’d done was sit next to the window air conditioner and watch the movie over and over until it cooled down just enough to flop on the couch and fall asleep.

Anybody else?

She decided Pocahontas was an OK second choice, especially considering her Gramma was supposed to be one sixteenth or something Seminole. Ariel or Jasmine would be all right too, but not Belle. No way. How could you fall in love with a monster, no matter how nice he was? She explained all this in a flurry of texts to the lady who called herself Auntie Jodie, making sure she understood Anna was her first choice by a long shot. She said she understood. She said her brother knew a guy at Disney who did the casting for the park princesses, and it wouldn’t be a problem. That made sense, Alex thought, since Auntie Jodie was the one who’d placed the online ad for “Disney Princess Models” that she answered on one of those hot July days right after her eighteenth birthday. And sent her money for bus fare and new clothes within two days, no questions asked.

Alex thought she’d died and gone to heaven when she saw the hotel room Auntie Jodie put her up in the first couple of days and the meals she treated her to, in restaurants with actual cloth on the tables. Alex was so happy she didn’t mind when Auntie Jodie said she had to leave the hotel for a couple of days and stay with her while she scheduled the interviews with the guy. And she felt truly sorry for Auntie Jodie when she arrived home one night and explained, shamefacedly, that the guy was willing to meet with her, but she might have to “play along a little” depending on what happened, because that’s how these guys work.

Alex played along, though she hadn’t wanted to.

She played along with the next guy, too.

And the next one, and he hurt her badly enough that once she’d stopped crying she accepted the pill to help with the pain that Auntie Jodie offered apologetically as she wiped her own eyes, like marbles pressed into the dough of her face, and put her arm around Alex’s shoulder.

And then cuffed her, telling her to be more careful next time.

And then gave her another pill.

That was in September. Now it was November. And she still needed another five hundred before she could get the interview.

“So talk to the guy tomorrow?” Alex said that afternoon.

“He had to cancel,” Auntie Jodie said. “Probably Thursday.”

“Thursday for sure?”

“Fingers crossed,” she wheezed.

Alex tried to zone out when they got back to the trailer, but it was hard to relax with Auntie Jodie stomping around the kitchen, yelling that she couldn’t find her knife. Alex just stared at the TV, thinking about Anna and crinkly dresses with puffy sleeves and five hundred dollars.

And the knife. And what she might do with it if Auntie Jodie didn’t stop hitting her.

***


Even with Shayne along the routine was the same. They started at EveryMed Rx Pharmacy, where Marty presented the forged prescription for Oxycodone and turned over a hundred dollars and received two full bottles and a form to sign saying they were for personal medicinal use only. They went to Family Ready Pharmacy next, repeating the drill, and BetterMed Rx after that. They drove past Walgreens and CVS and Walmart. It wasn’t worth the risk. Those places had computer systems now and you had to show your license.

It was late in the afternoon when they arrived at Chronic Care Management Clinic on an access street off the airport road. When it came their turn they presented themselves, explaining they’d hurt their backs at a construction site in Pompano Beach. Marty went in first. The doctor who saw him was pear-shaped, pale-skinned and had thick, brushed-back hair the color of crow feathers shed in a downpour.

“Show me where it hurts.” The doctor’s eyes soft and sympathetic.

“I think it’s my L5, S1,” Marty said by rote, reaching around to his lower back. “It’s popped before.”

“I would concur,” the doctor said, not moving from his chair. He wrote a prescription and handed it to Marty and told him he hoped he felt better and said the dispensary was down the hall. Marty nodded, not bothering to explain he knew that already. He handed over the cash and received four bottles in return and went outside and waited for Shayne.

“I’m gonna grab some chow,” Shayne said, looking at his watch. “Want anything?”

They ate pizza in the motel room, curtains open so they could watch the sunset over the ocean, even being the ocean was almost a mile away. Finished, Marty leaned back on his pillow, fighting sleep, and also a feeling of hopelessness. It was around this time, the work for Shayne done, that normally he was accustomed to saying so long to Frankie and Mike and taking a side trip down the road. To a house that wasn’t much more than a shack with a sign outside advertising herbal drugs and ozone therapy. A place where he could get double the pills for the price at the clinic. It had been so easy. On his return, present Shayne with exactly the number of pills he’d budgeted for. Then, afterward, take the extra pills he’d bought, yeah, technically with Shayne’s money, and distribute them on the sly through his buddy, and take the money from those sales and give it all to Janney. Between Marty’s cut from Shayne and the side dough she could make rent and buy diapers and food and not ever go back to the streets. Back to the pimp and his helper girl who treated Janney so bad.

But not tonight. Tonight Marty lay on the bed in the motel room while Shayne watched a Survivor show and drank his Dew and worked his phone. Marty drifted off, only to awake with a start hours later. He’d heard a shout—a high-pitched feminine yell. He looked at the other bed and saw a girl on top of Shayne trying to keep his hands off her breasts as Shayne said, “You like that, don’t you?”

In the morning Marty woke up and then Shayne woke up and they did it all over again.

***


“I got to $500 yesterday,” Alex said. “I counted it. So how come—”

“How come is the guy’s not feeling well and asked if we could meet Monday instead,” Auntie Jodie said. “And I told him yeah, because he’s being nice enough to meet with me.”

“With us.”

“What?”

“You said meet with you. But he’s meeting with us, right? Because this is for the Anna job I want.”

“Right,” Auntie Jodie said, hand planted on her sofa-cushion sized chest as she tried to catch her breath. Better on her chest than Alex’s face. “Meet with us. That’s what I meant. Here’s a chance to get a little ahead, is all I’m thinking. Maybe just half a day. Whaddaya think?”

“I think I’d rather meet the guy.”

“I’d rather meet the guy too. Monday’s only three days.”

So Auntie Jodie dropped Alex back at the motel. And noon came, and she stopped by to check on her, and brought her a sandwich and a water bottle, and cuffed her, and apologized between shallow breaths as she explained there was just one more, some tourist, and then they could go home.

“How long,” Alex said, resting her hand on the drawstring bag. Feeling the outline of the knife under the material. Sneaking a glance at Auntie Jodie, guessing where the breastbone might be underneath all that fat.

“He’s on his way now.”

“Then we see the guy Monday?”

“Then we see how the guy’s feeling Monday.”

“Hope he’s feeling better,” Alex said.

“On his way,” Auntie Jodie said.

***


Friday morning they hit EveryMed a second time because Marty knew a different pharmacist came on duty to work a three-day long weekend shift. They planned to visit two other clinics afterward, but the line was so long at the first they lost an hour. Even so, Shayne seemed content when they walked out.

“We got exactly what I counted on. What I calculated. You’ve got the routine down, partner. Have to hand it to you. Not a pill more or less. Glad I came along, see how it’s done. See where you go. I’m feeling good about this. I may make it a regular thing. I like being on the road. Different sights. Different fruit.” He did that crab claw thing again with his fingers.

“So we’re heading home?”

“Just one stop on the way. Little east of Orlando. Then it’s back to O-HI-O. You homesick already?”

Marty thought about Janney. The panic in her voice when he’d snuck the call to her that morning, while Shayne was in the bathroom. The sound of the twins’ crying in the background.

“Just a homebody, I guess.”

“Not me. I like to get out and go.”

“I’ll pack the van.”

They drove until Cocoa West and then Shayne told him to exit and read him directions and they drove a few miles more until they came to a light. Marty turned right, and then left, and then into the parking lot of a motel with a single palm tree by the business office with brown-tinged leaves.

“Wait here,” Shayne said. “I won’t be long.”

“OK,” Marty said. Trying to keep his voice natural. Waiting until the van door slammed shut and Shayne was walking away to reach down and grab Shayne’s soda bottle.

***


“Ow!”

“You like that, huh?”

“No—stop it,” Alex said.

“How about like this?”

Ow! That really hurts.”

“I like it too,” the man said.

Alex arched back, trying to keep him inside her but also lean far enough away that his hands couldn’t reach her breasts. When his fingers first touched them she recoiled inside, as she always did, but figured it wouldn’t last long because this guy looked and acted like he needed it bad and was in a hurry. Creepy looking, eyes the color of a palmetto bug’s back. The sooner he was gone the better. Then he pinched her and she jerked back, yelling at the pain, and instead of apologizing he laughed and did it again.

She couldn’t lean back far enough.

“Ow!”

She rolled off him and scooted to the end of the bed.

“The fuck are you doing?”

“I told you that hurts.”

“And I told you I like it. Get back up here.”

“Not if you’re going to do that. That’s not the deal.”

“The deal?” The guy laughed. “The deal’s what I say it is.”

“No it ain’t,” Alex said, fumbling for her panties. “You need to leave.”

“I’m not leaving until I get what I paid for.”

“I didn’t say you could pinch—”

“Listen, bitch—” he said, slithering down the bed.

“No!” she said as he grabbed her left arm. She pulled free and fell to the floor, landing on top of the drawstring bag.

“No?” he said, laughing again as he reached for her.

***


It was a bit of an operation, it turned out, chewing the pills to a pulp, then carefully drooling them into the bottle of Mountain Dew, one dollop of spit at a time, mouth getting dryer and dryer at each go. Marty had done ten so far, which he figured was enough, but who really knew? Pure speculation that Shayne wouldn’t taste the pills as he drank the soda, though one thing in Marty’s favor was how thirsty Shayne always was after a girl. What he would do with Shayne later on, if it worked, he hadn’t thought about. He’d get to that. Janney might—

He stopped. He stared as a large woman—a very large woman—limped toward the room Shayne disappeared into a few minutes earlier. She walked with difficulty, legs like pile drivers and arms like sofa cushions. Flesh straining to burst from her black t-shirt and sweatpants. She knocked at the door, waited, knocked again, and went inside.

Shit. This wasn’t good. Shayne had the keys with him, like he always did. If that woman—

He had to do something. Shayne had the keys. And Shayne had to climb safely back in the van so he could drink his Mountain Dew.

Marty glanced around the parking lot, looked again, got out of the van and walked fast toward the room.

***


“You stupid, stupid girl,” Auntie Jodie said. Wheezing so badly she had to lean against the wall as she took in the scene before her.

“I didn’t mean to,” Alex said, head ringing from the blow from Auntie Jodie’s fist. She used a fist this time. “He wouldn’t stop pinching me.”

“Like that matters.”

“He hurt me.”

“Who cares—”

They both turned at the sound of the room door opening. A man stood in the doorway and stared.

“Holy crap,” he said.

***


It took a moment for Marty to process everything. Shayne on the bed on his back, a knife jutting from his left eye, blood pooling around him. A half-naked girl crouched at the end of the bed, a welt rising on her left cheek. The enormous woman glaring at him as she took deep, gasping breaths.

“Who—?” he started to ask.

Before he could finish she was coming for him, arms outstretched like giant rolling pins as she lurched in Marty’s direction. He braced himself and at the last second punched her soft chest with the palms of both hands and to his surprise she staggered backwards and fell over, the floor shaking a little, and just lay there, struggling for breath. Wheeze. Pause. Wheeze. Pause.

“Who are you?” the girl said.

“Who’s that?” Marty replied, pointing at the woman.

“She’s—”

“She needs help,” Marty said.

“Like him?” the girl said, gesturing at Shayne.

Marty stood there, head spinning. He glanced down and realized he was still holding the bottle of Mountain Dew. He looked at the girl and then at Shayne and then the lady on the floor and then back to the girl. He saw how the girl stared at the lady. He thought of Janney and the twins and the streets he’d pulled his sister off. Away from the girl working for the pimp—not quite as fat as this lady, but getting there—the girl who kept hitting Janney for no reason . . .

“Sure,” Marty said. “Like him.”

He kneeled, twisted the top off the soda, and used his left hand to gently raise the woman’s head. She blinked, confused, but even in her state gratefully took a drink. And another. And another. When the bottle was mostly empty Marty lowered her head just as gently. After a couple of moments she snorted and gasped and her chest rose and fell three times like a hill riding an earthquake. After a couple more moments her head fell to the side and she wasn’t wheezing anymore.

Marty said, “Are you all right?”

The girl glanced at Shayne, naked and spread-eagled on the bed with a knife in his eye.

“I guess. Are you?”

Marty looked at the woman on the floor, bubbles of spit on her lips.

“Yeah.”

Marty turned his back while the girl gathered her clothes and went into the bathroom. When he heard the door shut and water running he went through Shayne’s clothes. He found the keys easily enough. Next he found Shayne’s wallet. It held all of eleven dollars. Disgusted, he threw the wallet and Shayne’s pants on the floor. The pants landed with an odd thud. Marty picked them up and felt around and reached inside the right pants leg.

The girl came out of the bathroom. She was wearing sneakers and jeans shorts and a t-shirt with a princess and some kind of snowman on it.

“What is that?” she said.

“It’s money.”

“I can see that. How much?”

“A lot.”

“A lot lot?”

He told her that it was.

The wad of cash Marty found in the sewn-in pocket down the leg of Shayne’s pants was as thick as the business end of a baseball bat. But unlike the wad Shayne always gave Marty, this wasn’t just twenties. These were hundreds. And there was another wad just like it in the other pants leg.

“We should go,” Marty said.

“We?”

“You can come if you want.”

“Where?”

“I’m from out-of-state. Columbus, Ohio.”

“I’m from here. Jacksonville, actually.”

Neither of them spoke for a second.

“Could I have some money?” the girl said.

“Money?”

“You said it’s a lot.”

“How much?”

“I’m not sure.” She pulled a pile of greasy bills from a drawstring bag. “I don’t have quite enough.”

“For what?”

She told him.

Then she said, “Where’s that money from?”

He told her.

“So how about it?”

He thought about the twins and Janney and the streets she’d been on.

“It’s OK with me as long as we leave right now.”

He dropped her off at the Magic Kingdom entrance an hour later. Gave her four bottles of pills and half of Shayne’s cash. The remainder was still three times what he normally earned after a trip. More than enough for his sister and the twins. He watched the girl march toward the entrance gates, head held high and drawstring bag over her shoulder like a royal satchel or something, until he couldn’t see her anymore. Then he turned around and headed for the highway. He needed to be on his way. It was a long drive home, and it was just him behind the wheel.

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