Friday, March 4, 2005, 10:11 a.m.
Right around the time her father was walking out of Captain’s, June dreamed that she was sitting on the front steps of her parents’ house, watching her brother Johnny mow the lawn in the hazy southwest Ohio summer heat of their youth, his t-shirt soaked in a V of sweat, the sun waning, like she always used to. In the dream, John was still the pimply teen with a goofy haircut frozen in her memory, but she was her current age. Once she realized this absurdity, the bottom fell out like the cartoon coyote once he looks down, and the hum of the mower’s engine morphed into the buzz of her cellphone on the nightstand.
It was the brother she had been dreaming about, calling for the seventh time and leaving a third voicemail. She paws for it with a zombie lurch, and once she sees the half-dozen missed calls she snaps out of her fog in a panic. Breathing rigidly through her nose, which is red and sore and encrusted with stalactites of cocaine-laced mucus, she steadies herself, playing a few seconds of the first voicemail – just enough to confirm that her brother’s tone isn’t some solemn ‘Dad is dead’-type thing. Her darkest fear put off for another day, she snaps the phone shut in the middle of her brother’s message and grabs her robe off the bedpost, making a bee line for the wooden cigar box on the entertainment center shelf in the living room where her husband kept the pot.
The weed was usually crumbly and stale, as neither one of them smoked very much. David almost never touched the stuff, having it around solely for June or guests. The only time she ever really toked was when she needed to level off the neediness of a coke hangover and David wasn’t around for an empty, puffed-face sunrise fuck. She fumbles the first few attempts before settling for a gnarled and uneven twig (David usually rolled them for her).
Splaying out on the couch like dropped luggage at a destination, she curls her painted toes over the edge of the glass coffee table and lights the joint with a grill lighter she found in the junk drawer. It doesn’t take more than two or three drags before she drifts off into a thought process as familiar and predictable as her father’s breakfast order. There are endless variations of it – some hopeful and determined, some broken and frightened – but they all boil down to the same basic tangent.
She tells herself that she should stop doing cocaine. And she should probably stop drinking, too. She should just smoke weed. Weed is the best drug. It keeps her calm. She writes more when she’s on it. She should start writing again. And she should leave David. Quit doing blow. Put the brakes on the drinking. Just smoke weed and write. And leave David.
Every now and again, she’ll stay off marching powder for a brief spell, or buy a typewriter at a flea market, or pick an arbitrary fight with David. But that’s about it. These thoughts are so frequent that they’ve been sanded down to little more than an tired mantra, no less hollow than the recited buzzwords of a hotel seminar preying on the desperate. The resolution to change floats away and dissipates with the smoke that inspired it. She puffs down about three-quarters before letting it smolder in the ashtray as she dozes off, her thoughts drifting back to her first year of college.
Free from the ten o’clock curfew that had plagued her social life throughout high school, and looking for a distraction from the recent death of her mother, June had spent most of her second freshman semester closing down the bars with boys who had III’s and IV’s after their names. It was on a night like this that she had met Alan, a sophomore business major whose father was a conservative congressman from New Jersey. It was supposed to be a one night thing – despite being handsome, Alan was kind of vapid and dickish in a way that repelled her. But they kept ending up with each other at night’s end, to the point where one morning she woke up and realized they were dating.
For months, her father had been planning to visit Princeton the day after the Red Men were scheduled to play Rutgers, which was the same day Alan – by then her boyfriend of nine weeks – was throwing a party on his family’s yacht at Pine Orchard Country Club. June hadn’t noted the date conflict until two days before, when her father called to let her know the hotel he would be staying at (the same one he always did, and she mouthed along the words with an eye roll as he said ‘the Holiday Inn there, off Independence Way’).
They met outside her dorm at nine in the morning as planned, booze still crashing against the walls of her throbbing brain. Fall was just beginning to deteriorate into winter, the color of the leaves standing out against the overcast sky. Jerry stood with his hands tucked into the pockets of a Southern Ohio windbreaker, watching the occasional student pass as he waited, giving a ‘Hey, there’ with a smile to those who made eye contact. Walking down the concrete path on her way back from Alan’s, June spotted him a good thirty seconds or so before he noticed her. His eyes had been sapped of their sparkle, and for the first time in her life, June saw her father as a vulnerable person. They flickered like a bug zapper when he first saw her, giving a quick glimpse of their old life.
‘June, you’re too thin,’ he whispered after pulling away from a hug that seemed to linger a bit longer than usual, as had been the case since Wilma’s passing. He looked her up and down with disapproval. ‘Are you eating?’
‘Yes, Daddy’ she sighed with a roll of her eyes. This was not a lie, although she often threw it up afterwards.
‘And those pants, my God Almighty. You get those at Salvation Army? You look like a homeless person for crying out loud.’
‘Daddy, these are what everybody wears now.’
‘Everybody sounds bright,’ he muttered, turning towards the parking lot. ‘Let’s go get some breakfast.’
‘You tired?’ he asked, after she’d leaned the car seat back and closed her eyes.
‘Little bit’ she mumbled, burrowing her hands under her armpits and shivering. ‘I was studying really late last night.’
‘What’re you studying?’ he asked, poking his index finger into the eye-shaped hole in the knee of jeans and wiggling it around. She slapped it away and giggled, giving herself a mental pep talk before easing her seat up.
‘Veblen’ she said, swiping a fang of hair behind her ears.
‘Yeah? Who’s he?’
‘He wrote about the leisure class.’
‘What’s he say about them?’
‘He doesn’t like them. He thinks they buy things just to show people they have money.’
‘Sounds like a bright guy,’ he said, grabbing her knee and shaking it. ‘What do you think old Veblen would’ve made of those pants? Huh?’ He laughed and she gave a conciliatory smile before staring down at the floormat.
At breakfast, Jerry ordered a waffle with strawberries, a single egg sunny-side up, two slices of crisp bacon (‘make sure they’re crisp, now’) wheat toast with butter and a black coffee. June opted for one pancake, no syrup or butter, a single piece of white toast, and a water.
‘That’s all you want?’ he asked after the waitress collected the menus and walked off.
‘I’m not hungry.’
‘Honey, you need to eat more. Look at you, you look like Popeye’s girlfriend.’
‘Daddy, I’m fine. How’d the game go?’
‘Eh, we won by three,’ he mutters, taking a pull from his cup and exhaling. ‘Played sloppy.’
‘How’d Rick do?’
‘Ricky did alright. He’s like your brothers, all shooting, no defense. Everybody wants the points. They all think they’re Pistol Pete.’
‘How are you doing?’
‘Oh, you know.’ His eyes fell into his coffee and the silence that had become commonplace in recent months began to linger. ‘It’s not the same.’
‘Who knows,’ he groaned, waving his hand on cue. ‘He’s monkeying around with some goofy minor-league team in Illinois now. He took a physical for them yesterday. I told him they should’ve examined his head.’ June smiled at her father’s familiarity. ‘You know, your hair looks a lot better without all that dye and mousse in it.’ She didn’t say anything, her eyes suddenly drawn to the salt and pepper shakers.
‘So how’s school? You doing alright?’
‘You look like you lost weight.’
‘You need any money?’
‘I could use a little.’
‘What happened to the hundred dollars I sent you last month?’
‘I still have some of it.’ She had spent it the day she got it. Eighty on the jeans she was wearing, and the leftover twenty at the bar. ‘Saving a couple dollars for an emergency, like you always say.’
‘Atta, girl,’ he said with a nod, sipping his coffee. ‘I ever tell you about the time your brother Johnny blew a tire? Right after I give him money to go see The Who?’ His lips curled up into the first genuine smile of the day, but she had been too busy picking at her toast to notice.
‘Yes, Daddy, you told him to go ask The Who to pay for the tire,’ she said with a roll of the eyes and a sigh that fluttered her bangs. Her continued fixation on each and every butter clogged pore of her toast also prevented her from seeing his smile melt like a salted slug.
‘You want me to take you up to the store? Get you some groceries?’
Before she could answer they were interrupted by Diane and Lindsay, the slender bottle blondes with hot dog colored tans who lived across the hall from June. Unable to find her, the two had decided to try and shake their hangovers with some food before heading out to Pine Orchard. She introduced them to her father, and he asked them to sit down, which made June uneasy.
‘How long are you in town for?’ Diane asked in the perky tone reserved for parental visits.
‘Oh, just the night. I’ve got to be on the road early tomorrow.’
‘You’re driving?’ Lindsay asked in an incredulous tone, mouth hanging open. ‘How long is that?’
‘Oh, about ten, eleven hours,’ he said, sipping his coffee, the girls’ eyes widening at this information. ‘It’s not too bad, some really nice country along the way.’
‘So what do you guys have planned for the day?’ Diane asked.
‘I don’t know,’ Jerry said, clearing his throat. ‘You girls want to see a movie or something?’
‘Oh, we can’t’, Lindsay whimpered. ‘We’re going out to Pine Orchard today.’
‘Oh, yeah? What’s in Pine Orchard?’
‘A friend’s party’ Diane said, looking towards June for approval.
‘You girls don’t have enough parties out here?’
‘It’s on a boat,’ Lindsay explained. ‘June’s boyfriend’s.’ Diane shot her a teeth-gritted glare while June chewed a fingernail. ‘Well, his parents own it.’
‘When are you doing that?’
‘We’re leaving around noon.’
Jerry just nodded, changing the subject. He waited until Lindsay and Diane had fled for the bathroom to throw up the breakfast he bought them before bringing it up again.
‘How long have you had this boyfriend?’ he asked, lowering his eyes to meet hers.
‘Not long’ she whispered, studying a dessert menu she had no intention of ordering from.
‘When were you going to tell me about him?’
‘I don’t know. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. I don’t even really like him that much.’
‘Then why are you going out with him?’ June began to ponder this question for the first time. ‘Honey, pick them, don’t let them pick you. I worked hard so you could do that.’ He peeled off a few twenty dollar bills and slipped them to her under the table.
‘Thank you, Daddy.’
‘Go with your friends.’
‘Dad,’ she protested with wooden acting, wanting exactly that, but feeling cruel doing so.
‘Have fun at your party,’ he said, tossing his hand. ‘You earned it.’
‘What are you going to do?’
‘Eh, I’ll just get on the road a little early. We got Tennessee A&M this week, couldn’t hurt to take a little extra time to prepare.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Go have fun. We’ll see you kids at Thanksgiving.’ Jerry put his hand on her’s and smiled, his lifeless eyes glinting again for a second. She couldn’t help noticing the ‘we’, as if her mother was still alive. ‘I’m very proud of you, honey.’
‘Thank you, Daddy.’
Her brother’s eighth call snaps her out of her reverie and back into present day Chicago. She grunts and hurls her phone, its microchip guts exploding against the wall.