The store sat on a corner just before his turn off. A brick and glass that had been there for as long as he could remember. It had one gas pump and a cooler for bagged ice along the side. In front there was a locked cage full of propane tanks, a garbage can with an ashtray top, and a newspaper machine. There were a few sale prices postered in the ground-to-ceiling windows that took up most of the frontage. He pulled in at the last minute, thoughtlessly, and settled the red, grumbling truck in front of the cooler.
But it wasn't thoughtless. It had been over a year since he had seen her. He had called her on the phone when he had money to give her, which wasn't very often, and even then he put it in one of the parking ticket envelopes he had stockpiled in the glove compartment and left it in the mailbox. She never said anything about it, the money, and she never asked him to come inside, to see her, to say a thing himself. She didn't have to. The question was in her voice and came through loud and clear in their quick, passionless phone conversations. That was until yesterday.
He turned off the engine and sat quietly in the mid afternoon calm. It was hot and humid. The weather, the thick air, sunk into his swollen head, seemed to vibrate his aching eyes. There was rain coming. It stiffened his knees and his back. The lingering poison of the whiskey seemed to amplify it all. All that getting old and hurting. All that thinking. He wasn't thinking of the boy. He wasn't thinking of just how this was all going to happen. He was just thinking of her and how the hell he was going to walk into that house and take control of the situation. What would she say and how would he respond? He couldn't see it going well. He knew Dolly and he knew she only held her tongue for so long. It was a lot longer than most women would, but there was most definitely a limit.
He stepped out of the truck and stretched out his back. He walked around to the front door and surveyed the empty, crumbling sidewalk. He felt the circuitous tinge of being there, of going where he was going, all over again, and wondered if he shouldn't turn around and go back to the trailer and call the whole thing off. She would argue and scream and cuss, but he would still get his way. That had never been the problem. But there was more to this than getting his way. He couldn't deny it. He had tried most of the morning, most of the night even, but it always came down to the unspoken, inarguable fact that he had to.
"Hey Briar," Helen said as he came in through the glass door, stubbing out his cigarette at the last moment in the top of the garbage can.
The air conditioner was roaring inside the store, the cool air tainted with the smell of stale beer and bleach and age. Helen looked back to her crossword puzzle as Briar rounded the magazine rack and made his way toward the coolers in the back. He let his fingers drift through the puddle of condensation collected on the glass until he found the brand she liked and pulled out a six pack. The cold air that wafted out of the cooler gave his throbbing eyes relief and he lingered there just a second later, eyes closed, letting the chill settle into his blood.
"How y'doin, Briar."
"How's th'boy doin?"
"Outta control, Helen. He's a wild'n"
She smiled, chuckled a little trying to concentrate on the grid of buttons running down the plain of the cash register. She looked down through her reading glasses and Briar could see her mumbling to herself what each of the little square buttons said. This is what made him chuckle. Helen had been working in that same store for years.
"Yep," she said once she had found the button she was looking for. "Boy's are hard t'raise that way. Easiern girls once they git a lil older, but them boys is the hardest when they's younguns."
"He git that trouble taken care of?"
He fished around in his pocket for the twenty dollar bill he knew was there and paid for the beer. He pocketed the change and cradled the beer once Helen had gotten it into a paper sack
"He's home. We're gittin'im settled, though."
She leaned on the counter, her elbows bowing up the "WE ID" sign taped there.
"He's a good boy. He'll come aroun."
He folded down the top of the sack and smiled.
"We'll git'im straightened out."
"Y'know Jesse Drewberry?"
"Don't think I do."
"Has all them duplex 'partments right down there by th'brick yard."
"Yeah. Know'er ol man, Danny."
"Yeah. She had some trouble with her boy like yern. Like t'fight and started breakin inna th'neighbors houses. Takin stupid shit, y'know."
"She took'im downa baptist church. Preacher there's name Bobby Willis. He takes them boys like'at an he straighten'im out. Does like a camp."
"How that work for'er," Briar said absently.
"Seems he done th'boy some good. Gottem goin t'church an I don't think he been breakin th'law no more."
"Maybe he c'd do something fr yr boy."
"Maybe I'll look into it."
Helen smiled and tapped her fingers on the counter. Briar smiled back and nodded goodbye and dipped his finger at her as if he was doffing an invisible hat.
He slid the six pack through the window and set it on the seat and tapped a cigarette out of the crumpled pack. He turned and leaned against the door and put a flame to it. He pulled in the smoke as deep as he could until there was a catch in his lungs and he exhaled before he coughed. He knew Helen had mentioned Henry because she knew he had been locked up. That was the polite way of gossiping about someone to their face. He also knew she had not said anything about Dolly because she knew they weren't together. More of the same. It had always been that way. People smiling at him and talking like they were friends, but always they had that bit of citation, and he that slight glow of guilt. It was how things worked. They were all friends, or had been at one time. Most of them had grown up together all in the same town, had gotten older together and stayed poor together and everybody knew everybody else's business in one form or another. No one shamed a person for who they were. Live in the same town with the same people long enough and they all have something to be ashamed of. It becomes a part of how they look. It wears in their faces. It shows in how they walked and it shows in scars. Mostly it's just how you see them, like their is a ghost of the past just over their shoulder, shrouding them in a phantasmal shadow of years and words and broken hearts. Briar knew he couldn't help any of that but it didn't stop him from feeling the guilt when he saw it himself. He felt like their was no way to escape it. He knew people and there was no forgive and forget. He couldn't help any of it, but he couldn't escape it either.
It made him think of Dolly. All the fights and all the times he left her. None of that would go away. She wasn't going to forget all that. It would be on him. He was stained with it. He could be the nicest son of a bitch that girl had ever seen for the rest of their lives and it would still be there. Just behind a smile, like the ghost of a frown. Or a bit of coldness in a kiss. When is he going to leave? When is he going to get mad?
And the boy? He was half a stranger to that boy. He had nothing but fear in him. He was a mean little bastard, he had proved that much, but Briar knew it was because he was so afraid. Afraid of everything. It disgusted Briar, but made him a bit sad too. He felt like there was nothing he could do about it. The boy wasn't going to get rid of a fear like that. It was already who he was.
He tossed the cigarette against the side of the building and started to get into the truck, but caught sight of the dingy, white building across the street and thought twice. The seed of the thought was all it took. He opened the truck door and pushed down the lock and closed it again. He made his way across the parking lot and across the street. There was another car pulling in as Briar walked along the front building. Two young boys got out of the yellow GTO laughing and swaggering and Briar held the door open for them.
Forsythe's had been there most of Briar's life. It was run by Don Forsythe, who had bought the place when he got out of the navy in the early seventies, and he had been behind the bar frying burgers and pouring beers ever since, and it was Don Forsythe who greeted Briar as he followed the two kids through the door.
Briar took a seat at one end of the bar, which took up most of the space of the cramped building, while the two boys sat at the other. Between them, huddled around a half-full mug and watching the football highlight reels playing on a television in the corner, was a man Briar knew vaguely. They nodded to each other and the man put his eyes back to the television.
Don waddled down to the two boys at the far end of the bar, giving Briar a look which he replied with a nod and a hand. The boys ordered two lites and, after looking them over to decide if they were old enough, Don slowly yet steadily waddled back to the tap and filled two mugs.
"Where'd that come from?" one of the kids asked pointing to a long, thin sword hanging on the wall above the bar.
"Japan," Don said as he sat the beers in front of them.
"You from Japan?" the other laughed. They both sipped the head off their beers.
"World War II? You must be oldern you look."
"Vietnam, and I am old."
Both the boys laughed again and drank and Don turned to come back up the bar.
The man watching the television nodded and drank.
"How boutcha, Briar."
"I'll take a beer."
"I reckon I should eat. But you can wait a minute to put it in."
Don poured the beer and set it down in front of Briar and plucked a toothpick out of an open box behind the bar. He licked the end and stuck it in his mouth.
"You doin good?" he asked Briar.
"Reckon I'll make it."
"Reckon we all will, til we don't"
"You still lookin for tires for that ol truck o'yrs?"
"Naw. Mike Peevey come across some."
"He rip y'off?"
Briar smiled and took a pull from his beer. "That boy owes me so much money, I reckon I could rebuild that truck with what he owes me."
"Seems like he owes everbody."
"He cain't even come in here no more."
"Owe you too."
"Me an ever body else. Ever time he's in here, somebody see his truck and come in wanting paid back fr somethin or other."
"Well, let me git this burger down for ya 'fore I frgit."
Briar tapped out another cigarette while Don headed for the fryer. He opened up a small plastic cooler sitting on top of the bottle cooler and pulled out a burger wrapped in a sheet of wax paper. He carefully unwrapped it so the patty didn't come apart, tossed it in the trash can and set the patty in a fryer basket and lowered the basket into the grease.
"You a cook in the Army?" one of the boys at the end of the bar asked.
"I's in the Navy."
"Oh, well, were you a cook in the Navy," the boy said as if Don hadn't understood what he said.
Don walked up to the boys and took off his grease-stained ball cap to reveal a bald, knotty, lightly scarred scalp that looked more like a fleshy gourd than a human head.
"See that head? You don't get a head like that being a cook."
The boys, having pulled away when Don revealed his tortured scalp, smiled and shook their heads.
"You see lot's of action in the Navy?"
"Not too much. I's a boatsman. But you pull into port and the other boys, they look out for the cook. Cook's a gotdamn hero on the ship. Cook doesn't git touched."
Both boys were laughing out loud, slapping the bar and elbowing each other.
"I go out, go into a bar and git into a fight."
"Boatsman, aye? Couldn't be a admiral or nothin?"
"Naw. They tried t'promote me a few times, but I'd find a way t'fuck it up. Boatsman was fine with me."
He went back to the fryer and pulled the basket up. He laid a hunk of cheese over the browned patty and sunk it back down into the oil.
Briar eyed the boys at the end of the bar, puffing on his cigarette and trying to tell himself that they were young and foolish. They weren't really trying to be disrespectful the way they were talking to Don. He finished off his beer, and Don poured him another.
By the time Briar finished his burger, both the boys had gone through three more beers and were starting to get riled. They were hopping up out of their seats and hooting and laughing and trying to get Don to tell them war stories, about the girls in Vietnam mocking the ones they had seen on TV and in the movies. Don told them he wasn't into telling war stories and that they needed to settle down in the calm, half-hearted way an old bartender did, which didn't make a dent in the two keyed up boys. One of them, a skinny, blonde kid in shorts and an under shirt and a ball cap turned around backwards, saddled up next to the man Shep.
"You in the war, old man?" he asked and laughed looking at his partner.
"Naw," Shep said and tried to drink his beer.
"Not even the Navy?"
"Not the nothin."
"Ya'll leave'im alone," Don said.
"Y'ant a real drink Briar," he said and pulled out a dented flask with an anchor etched into it.
"Reckon I need one."
They both pulled from the flask and watched the boys hopping around and laughing and trying to get Shep into the act. He only drank his beer when one of them wasn't jostling him, and tried to ignore them for the television.
"You kill a damn ninja fr that sword?" one of them yelled down at Don.
"That thing sharp?"
Don ignored them, saying to Briar, "Glad yr boy ain't thataway. Know you wouldn let'im."
"Ain so sure, Don."
Briar chased away the sting of Don's cheap whiskey with the last of his beer and Don poured him another.
"You boy's settle down, now."
"I said, that thing sharp."
Don set Briar's beer down and shook his head. He plucked the toothpick out of his mouth, drank from his own beer sitting behind the bar, and then replaced it. "Gotdamn," he hissed.
The other boy, shaved head and a ball jersey two sizes too big for his thick frame, hopped up on his stool and then stood up on the bar.
"Gotdamnit," Don hissed again, "git down from thar."
He spit the toothpick toward the trash can, though it missed by a good foot or two and pulled himself up off his stool.
"I wanna see that ninja sword," the boy said.
Don walked to where the boy was standing on the bar, but there wasn't anything he could do. The boy pulled the sword off the hooks from where it hung and brought it down.
"That's a real one, ain't it?"
"Yeah it's real, now git off m'fuckin bar."
"Alright, old man, damn. I just wanted t'see."
The boy slid the sword out of it's wrapped hilt and began waving it side to side.
"Give it here."
"You kill a ninja fr this?"
"I said give it here."
"Hold on," the other boy, the skinny one, said, and then, "Lemme see it."
Both of them were enamored by the glinting steel and ornate etching on the blade. Neither one of them saw Don bring out the pistol from under the lip of the bar.
"Hey, boy," Briar growled just loud enough to get the kids' attention.
"What the hell you want," the bigger boy with the sword said.
Briar just nodded toward Don, keeping his eyes locked in the boy's. When the boy saw the revolver, Don's hand over it resting on the bar, he stepped back but keeping the sword up as if it would have stopped a slug from ripping a hole straight through him.
"Whatchu gonna do with that, old man?"
"Nothin I don't have to."
The skinny blonde boy took a few steps away from the bar, tapping his friend on the shoulder but not taking his eyes off the gun.
"It's cool, mister," he said shakily. "Didn mean nothin. Just havin fun."
"Well, yr actin like a fool, son."
"Put it down," the boy whispered to his friend. He reached into his pocket and tossed a twenty dollar bill onto the bar.
The boy with the sword smiled and took a step back and with a raspy grunt raised the sword and brought it down with a snap into the edge of the bar. The blade cleaved an inch into the wood sounding a splintering crack through the tiny room.
"Fuck," the skinny boy whined and started for the door.
"Fuck you, old man," said the other, pulling his hands from the sword and picking up his beer mug.
Don picked the pistol off the bar and pulled the hammer back. The boy, not flinching a bit, drank down the past of his beer and set the mug gently back on the bar.
"Ain't gonna tell again, son."
The boy turned and walked out the door, not saying a word to his friend or otherwise.
"Sorry bout all this," the skinny one said. "Guess we got outta hand."
"Go on," Briar said, and the boy did as he was told.
The three men in the bar didn't move or speak, but listened. They heard the two car doors slam shut and they heard the roar of the engine. Briar knew they wouldn't come back in, but he also knew that if they heard anything other than that car pulling out and taking off down the boulevard, Don would go out there and he would go out shooting. They heard the radio begin to blare and they heard the screech of tires as the car bounced over the curb and then another roar as the car took off.
"Little shits," Brair said.
He walked down to where the sword was wedged into the bar. He gave it a good, even yank, as to not bend the blade, and it barely gave.
"Gotdamn, this thing is sharp."
"Yep," Don said. He was still holding the pistol.
Briar gave the hilt another dipping pull and the blade came free. He inspected the blade where it had cut into the bar. It was scuffed a bit, but there was no nick. He tested the edge with his thumb, and it didn't seem the blow had damaged the edge at all. He picked the sheath up off the floor and slid the sword back in and set it on the bar.
"You want me t'hang it back up there fr ya?"
"Naw," Don said with a sigh. "I'll git it later."
He walked back down the bar and put the gun in it's place and sat on his stool. Briar noticed he was sweating, shaking a little.
"You gonna be alright?"
He finished off his beer in a hurry and smoked another cigarette. The men sat in silence and when Briar went to leave, Don wouldn't let him pay.
He walked back across the street and got in the truck and started it and pulled out into the street that ran between the store and Don's place.
It didn't really matter what Dolly wanted or needed or what she would forget or forgive, he decided. It was about his boy. He thought of those two boys and Don shaking and, at nearly seventy years old, having to shoot some fool kids with too much to prove and not enough sense. He thought he was a fuck up enough for the Pupp name, and he didn't want his boy doing worse. He could see the looks in people's faces and he could hear the whispers. It was up to him to stop it before his boy was another one of these fools like the two kids in Don's. Briar had grown up here, and he hadn't done too much with his life to speak of, but he knew respect, and he wasn't a fool like most. But would they still think that if his son turned out a fool? Not if he could help it. Who else could?
He was pulled into the driveway five minutes later. Nothing had changed since he had been there last. A few months now at least. He wondered who was mowing the yard and then he thought of Jim Young and decided not to think about it at all.
There was still hesitation. Even standing at the door, six-pack peace offering under his arm, he hesitated. Should he knock? Was that what estranged husbands did? Part of him hissed that it was his house too and he didn't have to knock. But then another part of him...
He decided to open the door and walk in, but he knocked as the door creaked back against a wall of unpainted drywall and called out as kindly as he could, "Hello?"
The same smell, something between mildew and paint, sour beer and years of cigarette smoke, moldy bread.
He made his way back through the living room, his fingers running along the drywall. He wasn't sure why, but he had the feeling that if there was anyone home, he was going to run. He was poised to dart back the way he came at the soonest sign of another person. As he entered the kitchen, he called out again. He set the six pack on the edge of the yellow-formicaed island and leaned against it waiting.
"Who's-" Dolly called from the bedroom and she stepped out into the den. Fell silent.
They stared at each other for a second and didn't speak. Didn't move. In effort to break the silence Briar pulled one of the cans of beer from the plastic ring and held it out to her like he was offering a peice of meat to a wild animal.
"I figgered you'd call for y'came," she said, her posture relaxing.
She didn't come for the beer.
"Didn know I needed to."
"Henry ain here now."
"Ain ready t'see'im yet."
"Why y'come then?"
Briar pulled another beer from the ring and pulled the tab, opened the first one, and walked into the den. He held out one of the beers and took a sip off the other, grimacing at the barely cold bitterness of it. He didn't like Dolly's beer. He had tolerated it while they were together, but in the two years they had been apart, he had lost his taste for the stuff. He took another sip of his own beer.
"It ain poison," he said poking the head of the can at her and winking.
She took the can and a step back. He waited for her to drink, and when she did, he did too.
"Why y'come if y'ain here t'see th'boy?"
"Well, I am."
"I am here t'see th'boy. Jus like we talked about."
"But I's jus figgerin we'd talk first."
"Oh," she said in the pessimistic, condescending voice that seemed to crawl up Briar's back and punch him in the back of his head.
He just smiled. He took a sip of beer and eased himself down on the arm of the couch.
"Dontcha think we need a talk?"
"Sure," she said and sat in her chair and lit a cigarette. Briar did the same.
"I know I ain-"
"Briar?" she said and he looked up at her surprised as if she had interrupted him reading a prepared statement.
"I don't need y't'pologize. You ain gotta explain nothin."
"I prefer it if y'didn, actually."
"I ain apologizing, Doll. I ain makin no excuses er nothin."
"All I's doin is tryn t'explain my intentions, damnit."
"I think you should know."
He tried to backtrack. He became acutely aware of how he was going to start this little talk that had been brewing in his mind offhandedly for months, of how self-deprecating it was, of how he was going to pile up all the blame on his own shoulders and then break through that sticky truckload of fault and blame with a revelation of his changed ways. Or his willingness to change. His willingness to do right from then on out. But that all sounded exactly like what she did not want to hear. He thought, why the hell should I be worried about what she wanted. It's about the boy, but he knew that wasn't going to get them anywhere. He saw the boys in Don's place and he thought of himself and he thought of...
"I's just trying to say I'm gonna do my best with the boy. Despite how I been in the past, I'm gonna do my best to be a daddy, and a husband, and I think I -"
He stopped because she laughed. It wasn't a full on laugh. It was more of a chuckle, really, like a squeak that escaped. She tried to plug her mouth up with beer and cigarette smoke so it wouldn't happen again and she kept from looking at him.
"Yeah? What's so funny?"
"A husband, Briar."
"Yeah, a father and a husband."
"Briar, if we could afford the divorce, we'd have us one. There ain no husband or wife here. Father? Ok. But don't think you-"
"Hey!" he shouted and immediately tried to wipe the anger away from his lips.
Dolly smoked and kept silent.
"I ain here fr you. I ain tryin t'make up er nothin."
She snorted again and bobbed her head haughtily.
"Goddamnit, you called me!"
She shook her head.
"You think I can teach that boy, git'im in line an I ain around here? Want me t'be some kind of weekend daddy. Take'im t'that ol trailer and play ball in th'fuckin yard."
"You plan on movin back here, aintcha?"
Briar extricated a cigarette from the dwindling, crumpled pack in his shirt pocket, dropped it between his lips, and in one swooping arc opened and struck his lighter and lit the cigarette. He looked her over as he smoked and noticed how she was making it a point not to look back. She stared forward and smoked her cigarette down to the filter.
"Alright, Dolly," he said, finally, burrowing his eyes deep into her head.