Author: Blacketter, Ryan
Date published: January 1, 2012
Mom and I and my little brother went to church every night, and once after Friday mass, we met Lucy at the hotel café. Lucy attended Mom's A. A. meetings. She wore a long brown coat with a fur collar, in summer, and her hair was short, and she liked aviator sunglasses pushed back on her head. She and her son had moved from the reservation a few years before. The booth window showed us how we looked to families driving by- two boys and two women in a diner at ten o'clock at night.
The ceiling vent rattled and cold air sprayed our shoulders.
"Why did Dad and Uncle Jerud sleep under the kitchen table last night?" Matt said.
Mom held her cup for warmth, breathing steam. She told Lucy that Jerud got a job selling insurance and they dressed up like cowboys and spied on their clients at the bars. "He's not even trying to come up with good lies anymore," she said.
"But they're not lying," I said. "They really are working undercover."
Lucy stood and tossed a dollar on the table. "I have to pick up my boy at the movies. Stop by my place sometime."
Mom watched her cross the floor and slouch to her truck at the curb right outside. They smiled at each other, waving, as she drove away.
"Mom, she's a janitor," I said.
"Yes. Some places need cleaning up."
"I want to go to sleep." I glanced at where the sky would be. Long tubes of light reflected in the glass. "We have practice in the morning."
We clicked shut our seat belts, and she tapped the brakes before our driveway. The porch bulb fanned a bright light on the front door. The two big windows showed black rooms. I disliked the outside light glaring while the inside lights were off.
Inside, she helped Matt get ready in the bathroom before tucking him in. Later the house began to creak. I knew that Matt didn't like the creaking either.
He trotted into my bedroom. "There's a devil in my window," he whispered. I flapped the sheet back and he dove in facing away and pulled his knees to his chest, folding up small against the bad things. I fit my arm around my brother, careful not to bother his sleep breaths. He was nice to hold onto when the house was quiet, dark.
A breeze rustled my curtains of gun-shooting cowboys. A chain clinked on the pole out back.
At breakfast Mom accidentally set a plate at Dad's empty chair. She clattered the plate back into the cupboard, put a kettle on, and sat with us boys. She read a magazine, eating bacon. She'd have tea, then rest till late afternoon, reading, napping.
I squinted into the back window sunrise.
"Here they come," I said. "Mom."
Mom rolled up the magazine and squeezed it in a fist. Across the back fields, their shapes walked toward home- Dad and his brother, melting against the sun.
They stumbled through the kitchen door laughing so hard they were quiet. Dad fell against the stove, knocking the kettle, and rested his elbow on the hot red coil. His shirt sent up a trail of smoke. He dipped his arm into a tub of dishwater. "You guys booby trap the place? Ouch. Damn." He dropped to a squat. "Ha ha!"
Jerud lay on the floor, laughing. "Booby trap! You kill me!"
When their laughter died, they sighed and hooted, giggled in fits. Jerud had moved here two weeks before. At dinner one night he said he was a tank, made of the same stuff, and what he drank in the bars was fuel for the next day.
"How many days in a row can you keep this up?" Mom said, when their giggling had settled. Dad touched his elbow where he'd burned it.
"Ask my boss here," Dad said. "Not easy doing two jobs."
"Did you catch anybody?" Matt said.
"Caught one," Jerud said. "Fella claimed a neck injury. We got video of him riding the bull down at the bar."
"Where's your video camera?" Mom said.
Jerud sniffed. "In the car, downtown."
"Dad, we have practice," I said.
"I know it, buddy. I'll be there."
He lit a cigarette and tipped over and slept. Smoke drifted out of his mouth. The church men had asked Dad to coach our team. They told him they all took turns.
When the cigarette rolled off Dad's finger, Jerud picked it up.
"Mind if I sleep over?" Jerud said.
"I don't crash into your house half wild."
He tapped an ash into his own crew cut. "Well, if you did, I wouldn't kick you out."
"Your brother is passed out in front of his children," she said.
"Aw, you don't get my sense of humor. Marty's the only one who gets me."
"Why don't you stay at your apartment?"
"It's empty, it's lonesome. I'm not too sure about this town anyway. I'm thinking about a move to Vegas."
"You're going to quit another job?"
"I hear you been running with that Indian gal."
"She's my friend."
"Yeah, I been hearing."
Mom turned off the stove and swung her purse from the chair, went out the back door and threw the magazine flapping over the yard. "Boys, come here!" she said. Matt and I followed her out the side gate.
We circled neighborhoods in her car, once around the church, twice around the graveyard. I sat in back. In the front seat Matt pounded the plastic farmer against the dash and the head snapped off. He stuck the body in the glove box. Mom's fingers shook when she floated a hand to change gears.
"Can we say a prayer?" Matt said. He was trying to sound holy for Mom.
"We'll go to mass tonight."
"Mom," I said, "where are we going?"
"Your dad promised me in college, he said no more whiskey-ever. Jerud knows Marty can't handle liquor. I shouldn't speak, but you boys know what's going on. Kids know. I remember. Kids know what's wrong."
"I have practice," I said.
"Mr. Larkin might have to coach again."
"Dad said he's going to."
"Honey, did you see your dad just now?" She found me in the rearview. "Did you see him? Did you?"
"Nothing's a matter," I said. "He said he would. He can sleep for two hours and then we'll go. Practice isn't till nine."
"We'll visit Lucy. She won't mind."
She turned onto the river road. Far down in the canyon, house shadows striped the water, and the shimmering parts were like scales. We glided past our house- Mom didn't even look at it- and she turned onto a dirt road before the high cliffs, the road looping up and into the Orchards. The ground flattened. Rows of trees flashed by in angles. Then came desert country, and we entered a canyon dark in shade, with green fields at its bottom. "Lucy said the first gravel drive on the left," Mom said. She found the drive, followed its curves, and parked in front of a double-wide trailer, painted in colorful diagonal stripes and black figures here and there, bear, tree, hammer, hand.
Next to the trailer were fenced horses, two staring at the ground while another stared at us. When we got out, Matt offered grass to the horses, but they didn't want any. A creek slipped behind the trailer. On the shore, next to a tree painted six feet in red, a refrigerator lay on its back.
Canyon walls crowded the sky. I tipped my head to see the line of sun.
Lucy came outside in her long brown coat. She wore slippers that weren't pink anymore. Her hair was messy. I scowled around at broken things in the dirt, a tipped over barbecue, a rusted bike. Mom was looking at the figures painted on the trailer. "I love your house," she said. Then, "My God, are you okay?"
Lucy smiled. "It's pretty mild as far as black eyes go."
"Do you ever get any sun around here?" I said.
"Not much. But you appreciate it when it comes."
"I think I'd like having shade," Mom said.
"Why's the fridge outside?" I said.
She laughed. "I had to sleep in it last night."
"Why?" I said.
"What are you, a little cop?" Mom said. "She doesn't have to tell you anything."
"I'll tell him if he wants to know," Lucy said. "You mind?"
"No, I don't mind."
"Well, my husband came to visit my son. He was sober and I let him stay on the couch. But he's got a mouth on him." She pointed at her eye. "He gave me this, but I hit him first. Not good, not good. First sober punch I ever threw. Anyway, I wasn't going to sleep in the house, not with him in it, so I went out back to the broken fridge and chopped out the freezer shelf and dragged the fridge next to the creek. I got in, in my sleeping bag, and shut the fridge door. Kept the freezer door open and listened to the creek. All told, it wasn't a bad night."
Lucy opened her front door, laughing. She laughed at anything.
"Look at you all, hugging your elbows. Yes, this canyon keeps cold. Come on in. Jason's out fishing with his dad."
Inside, the house smelled like wet ground. Against the far wall a couch sat with no legs, and below the front window, where a TV should' ve been, a green-bulbed lamp without a shade rested on the floor. The woodstove leaked smoke halfway up the pipe, thin clouds drifting near the ceiling. There was nothing on the walls but a couple of paintings. One showed an animal skull next to a fence. I could barely see. In the dim light, the paintings became windows that looked out to desert. Down the hallway a dryer scraped, wheezing.
"Can we stay a while?" Mom's voice trembled. "Marty and Jerud just got home. They're crazy drunk."
"You look wore out." Lucy gave her a hug, sliding a hand on her back. As the dryer buzzed, I waved a hand through a smoke stream slanting down the air.
"Mom," I said. "We have practice."
"We'll make it," Lucy said. "I'm meeting Jason at the field. Why don't you rest a while first?" She led us down the hall to her bedroom. "Let me throw a cover on this bed real quick. Okay, lay down. Don't feel funny. There's room for the three of you."
We lay down and she came back with an armload of clothes and let the warm things tumble on top of us. "These are extra hot. I was redrying them to have warm things to wear. It's all a bunch of sweatshirts and T 's. Don't talk, be still. I '11 wake you up soon." Lucy floated a blanket down, trapping the warmth of the clothes. Over the window the shade was pulled down. It was like night. "Mmm," Mom said.
After a while, when Mom and Matt were asleep or lying there, I rolled off the bed and ran out to the living room. Lucy caught me by the arm.
"You have troubles I know all about," she said. "Your dad's a drinker, right?"
"No," I said.
I walked up the gravel drive and down the canyon road, stretching my fingers and making fists. In a field a horse jerked its head up and stared with laughter in its eyes.
"Why don't you look away," I shouted at it.
Somebody whistled behind me. It was Lucy, standing in the road, a hand on her head. "Come on back!" When I thought how she must 've heard me yell at the horse, I ran away on weird legs.
The road left the canyon. I found a trail that cut through the fields, toward our house a couple of miles away.
We were only five minutes late for practice, but the boys looked bothered when we pulled up, all of them quiet as if they had been talking. "Hey, kids!" Dad shouted from the window. He yelled it too loudly. I jogged over to the boys. "See this arm?" I said. "Worth ten million." But they didn't believe it either.
Dad walked to the diamond shouldering bats and hauling a ball bucket. He crashed the bats in the dirt. In jeans and no shirt he knelt on one knee, to plan the day, I guessed. His elbow was red, with a skin bubble on it, where he'd burned himself. He grunted to his feet and stumbled back one step. He laid a hand over his mouth. At home I had found him sitting on the couch with a plate of uneaten breakfast in his lap while Jerud laughed at a cartoon. I led him out of the house and opened the door of his truck.
Steam rose off the grass now. A dog chased a butterfly across the field.
"Think I have to sit down," Dad said.
"Already?" Jason said. "Aren't you going to hit balls to us?"
"You boys run laps a while."
The boys glanced at each other. A couple of them stepped back, away from Dad. We ran laps while he sat cross-legged holding his face.
Across the field, Lucy sat on her coat reading a book, in a T-shirt that pinched her armpits, the mirrored sunglasses over her eyes. Mom and my brother must still have been resting in her bed.
Jason ignored his mom when we jogged past her. After the second lap we stopped in the shade and paced, out of earshot of any adults, hands on our hips, catching our breaths. Teddy Larkin, who was bigjawed like his dad, said, "Worse coach ever."
"He works two jobs," I said. "All day at the prison, and then at night he's a detective."
"He's a drunk," Jason said.
"Look," Teddy said. "He's trying to stand up."
"He's rising from the deep."
"Will he do it, ladies and gentlemen? Will he stand up?"
Jason applauded. "He's done it again. He got up."
The boys clapped, all but me. At the backstop, Dad stood with a bat on his shoulder. We found our mitts and kicked up dirt heading to center.
Dad swung and missed in the haze. He knelt, stood, and he swung and swung, staggering around. More dust rose into the air. Hit it, hit it, and I finally heard the crack. We all shoved together, gloves high. Jason fired the ball to Dad and punched his glove like he wanted another. We spread out. I quickly tugged the front of my shirt. Then when Dad cracked a bad grounder a boy chased the ball into the street. A car slowed fast, bouncing to a stop with a shriek of tires.
"This is dumb," Jason said. 'Why's he even coaching? We have a game next week."
When he finally popped another one, nobody ran for it. Sun rays filled the curtain of dust, and Dad swayed with a hand against the glare, as if he had lost us.
Lucy jogged over to Dad. They talked for a minute before she touched his shoulder and he sat in the shade. Lucy took over, hitting mostly grounders, and swinging and missing some. I was glad she wasn't much better.
Although Dad was ready for a night off, he went out that night and the next and every weeknight, too, and Mom and Matt and I went to church.
On Friday night, instead of going to mass, we met Lucy at the fair. Mom and Lucy and Matt walked together while I kept far behind. They were like girlfriends in a movie, clutching each other's arm, pointing, one of them running ahead. Matt held Lucy's hand. She flipped a coin into a jar and won Mom a fat stuffed horse. They three rode the Tilt-a-Whirl. Flashing bulbs showed their laughing faces. After the ride Mom wanted me to stay close to them, but I kept running off, losing myself in all the people.
In the morning, Matt and I were tossing a ball in the backyard when Jerud stepped out the kitchen door. Music shook the windows, a rock song called Jesus Take Me Home. Clouds slid across the sky and the day flickered bright and dark. In the night the wind had shifted our yard to a new mess- trash buckets and lawn chairs, tarps and cans and plastic jugs, all scattered around.
"She won't mind me playing her CD," Jerud said. "I'm trying to wake up your dad for the game. That boy's out cold this time." He sucked a breath and panted a little, coughed. "I had too many smokes last night."
"Will you help warm up my arm?" I said. "Matt can't take hard throws."
An upstairs window slid open. Mom clutched her robe together at the neck. "Turn that off! I got two hours of sleep last night. Stay here one more time and you'll find a bucket of water on your head."
"You're not baptizing me," Jerud said.
He leaned a hand on the shed, above a plate of rusty nails and screwdrivers in the grass. Mom walked through the kitchen. The stereo went quiet, and a neighbor lady laughed- her kids were leaping a sprinkler- and I picked up a few twigs wet-eyed and tossed them to the ground.
"Is he going to coach my game?"
"I wouldn't lay money on him," he said. "Let me tell you boys a story."
"My game's clear down in Kirby."
Jerud squatted. His knees popped. He sucked at a cigarette with no filter.
"Me and your dad and the cattle dogs. I'll tell you this because we were the same ages you boys are. That makes you old enough to hear.
"Our dad liked his herding dogs, but our mom hated them, and she wanted everything her way. Always laying in bed reading crazy religious shit. You know what I'm talking about."
He glanced at Mom's window.
"One time one of the dogs got hold of her sleeve- on the road, in front of neighbors- and the next day she had a chore for us. She gave us a rifle and we boys went in the barn where she put a few unruly dogs. I did the deed first. Then your dad chased a dog, gun in hand, while I faced the big shut doors, us taking turns like that. They were slinking around close to the walls, whining. A couple of them were just puppies, but old enough to know it was good-bye."
Wind hissed in the trees and Matt's hair came alive. "You shot them?" he said. I knelt and stabbed a screwdriver at the ground, concentrating on the slow, careful plunges.
"I want Mom," Matt said.
"It was quite a time. Our mom speaking tongues like a preacher afire. That how you boys feel, about your mother?"
I looked at her bedroom window, reflecting sky. Jerud shouldn't talk about Mom.
"I don't know why your dad lets his wife run with that Lucy. Men in town are laughing at him. I wouldn't stand for it."
He picked tobacco off his tongue, looking at the fields. Weeds rolled like dogs running unseen.
"We have to be there," I said. "In Kirby"
"Don't know what to tell you. Your dad's in his hole."
"Will you help us?" I said.
"What's your mother doing up there- surfing the Galilee? Why the hell do some women need so much rest?"
"She yells in her sleep at night," I said, "and that makes her tired."
"They say we marry our mommas. Your dad sure did. She doesn't even go to your games. Mine didn't either."
"Too much noise for her, too bright."
"Guess somebody has to take care of you kids," Jerud said. "AU right. I'll go find my car downtown. We '11 try and do a Lazarus on that boy inside."
The Kirby team was out fielding balls. When their coach hit a pop fly, he tipped his head and hopped on one foot, and if the ball was caught, he made a fist at his shoulder and whispered yes. Across the road a sprinkler went ch ch ch, trying to water the park before it went up in flames. There was nothing down here but desert, not even a breeze.
Teddy Larkin and I swung warm-up bats, three at once, by our dugout. His parents, in tennis clothes, had perched themselves in the middle of the bleachers, with the church families. Mr. Larkin had cancer the year before, but we prayed him back to big and tan.
The other team jogged to their dugout. Mr. Larkin clapped. "You're going down!" he said.
"Think I'll ask my dad to coach," Teddy said to me.
It was no surprise to see Dad blinking slowly on the dugout bench. But a minute ago he'd pencil checked the roster with Matt. I thought he was okay after sleeping in the car. He'd said he was. When he woke up outside Kirby, he said, "I'm fine, I'm fine. Nothing wrong with me. Your mom in the car? You tell her no more from me, I'm done. No more drinking."
"Dad," I said now, "should we head out to center? It's our turn to field balls."
"I 'm fine. It's not that hot." He took deep breaths. "Let's start calling this a ball game." He clapped twice. "You guys ready?" Then he jogged out of the dugout, doubled over, and disappeared around the corner. There was a retching noise in the parking lot.
Jason clawed the high fence behind home plate, shaking it. "Something happens every time," he said. High atop the bleachers, Lucy sat alone, a book shut in her lap. "Watch yourself, son."
Some of the church families, who sat below Lucy, talked among themselves, but Mr. Larkin used a loud voice: "Here's a guy who drives drunk with his own boys. We saw him at the store, booze on his breath, kids in tow."
Jerud sat at the bottom corner of the bleachers. "Don't wreck on the way home," he told them. "I work at the insurance company and you're not covered, as of right now"- Jerud snapped his fingers"and neither are your children. Nobody's covered! You hear me? Nobody!"
Mr. Larkin turned his angry face at people's shoes on either side of him. Everybody was quiet.
I twisted my glove in the fresh chalk line, messing it up, wishing that Mr. Larkin liked our family. The Larkins were the richest family in church. They led the Apologetics class. They carried up the gifts.
"You boys get on the field," Mr. Larkin said. "We're going to kill them!"
I sat in the dugout while the boys moved at his command. Way across the ball field, past the highway, a tiny plane flew up the Clearwater, wobbling in the calm air, as if guided by an unsteady pilot. Mr. Larkin shouted again. He kept shouting.
Lucy came into the dugout. She handed me a styrofoam cup of ice water.
"Is my dad gone?" I said. "I heard a car leave."
"Your uncle took him. He asked me if it was okay. Your little brother ran to the park across the street."
"They're not coming back?"
"No. Are you up for playing in this game?"
"I have to. Everybody does."
"Not if they don't want to. How's your mom?"
"Really good. She's at home, baking things."
Lucy nodded. We left the field and crossed the park, Matt ran to us, his shoulders up and his face strange in fear. We walked between the brick buildings for something cold to drink.
In an alley, in the shade of a store, we drank the cold drinks Lucy bought us. She spoke to us. Somewhere past my not hearing, I was glad she was here. She held my hand when I reached for hers. I waited for the furious sound of the game to fade and disappear, though I continued to hear it even when the fans were silent. The ghosts of their hoarse cries hunted me through the hot streets while she laughed and told us jokes I couldn't understand.
Ryan Blacketter's short stories have appeared in Image, Crab Orchard Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. A graduate of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, he was a 2010 Writer-in- Residence in Portland's Writers in the Schools Program. He teaches writing and literature at Oregon State University.