BY DANI SANDAL
Dawn, and that sun is coming up slow behind low white clouds like a new bruise. It’s Sunday and most of the world is just thinking about rising. Not us. We’ve been going for days, nights, years. Now our turd station wagon sputters and chokes under me as it struggles to idle. Bingham’s not idle; he’s wasted, standing on the curb, barefoot in his oil-stained work shirt and blown out jeans, waving his arms around and preaching like one of those guys we’ve seen on street corners of America’s finest cities.
While I’m smoking a stale Kent and trying to not find a sermon on the AM, he’s fondling that gin-soaked mustache, twirling it and grinning at his predicament. He’s combusting. He’s my pop, and this is his personal religion: It’s what to do, what not to do, who to trust and who to steer clear of when I am not in the luxury of his presence. Which has been court-ordered, and coming down the pike.
“There’s crap in the freezer,” he says. “Ground steak, chuck steak, cube steak and Moon-Pies. Rent’s paid up for the month.”
Oh yeah? Big stinking whoop. It’s the 20th of June. We got ten days till the bell tolls.
Don’t sweat the small stuff, he tells me, because there’s a guy who owes him. There’s always a guy. “This guy should swing by with some cash within the next week or four. The Derringer is loaded and stuffed in the glove. Safety’s on. I think.”
Like I might have to go kill my cow when the freezers empty? He tells me to leave it on unless I’m sure. The safety. He says to be 97% sure before I take anybody’s head off.
I gun the engine, make listening noises. Throw out some Amens for effect. Tune the AM. Some slide guitar cuts through all lonely and mean. Soon it’s just the mantra of static and a preacher coming down hard again on backsliders. It’s making me all weepy for Jesus, so confused and alone and forsaken up there on that wood. I can’t help but wonder how sure he was that they’d stick up for him? Come for him. Save him. Seems the more sure he was, the bigger the let down. And the way this guys screaming through the static, it was some let down. His Pop failed him, epically.
The stick I’m smoking is almost out and the bottle of Dr. Pepper between my legs is piss-hot. In my cracked rearview a couple is framed. They’re parked behind us, making out in the cab of their rusted-out yellow Ford. Hands tangled in hair, Miller cans tipped on the dash. It makes me ache — it’s so romantic. It is pre-detox love.
In the last twenty-four hours, we’ve driven across the state, down to Oregon for a cold beer. Then flipped a bitch back up the 101 to Washington State. Bingham needed space and road to let me in on a few things. Life’s secrets. When we reached the end of the line, here at this chipped away half-way house, I realize we never had the heart-to-heart we were supposed to have. The secrets are still buried deep by bull’s ass. But we rocked out and flayed asphalt. Thin Lizzy. There is no band worth a nickel, my pop believes, who hasn’t had a member OD.
Now, he’s ready to rest. Slow down, he says. Get part of his life back. I keep telling him that I get it. Okay? I can take care of myself while he’s trying to gain ground by slowing down. I get it. Then the lady spills out of the cab behind us; one side of a worn cotton sundress is tucked up into the waistband of her black satin drawers. There’s a big tear at the hip.
This queen is barefoot, too, and carrying a grease-stained grocery bag, which most likely contains her world possessions. At least the ones she could find this morning. She wears a new necklace of purple hickeys around her long neck and there are yellowed bruises on her thighs that are almost lovely against such pale skin. She swerves above the pavement like a heat wave, closes one eye to focus on her man who’s wearing a red ball cap backwards and giving her a double-thumbs up, yelling, Go baby!
She wipes her mouth with an open palm. Her lips are the prettiest thing about her; they look as if they’ve been kissed hard her whole life. That bottom one is split wide and swollen like a budding rose.
Suddenly she snaps up, turns sharp and practically scramble-crawls up the dirt road to the big White House on the hill. There are thin slices of pale where ass cheek meets tan leg like sweet crescent moons. She stops a bunch of times, looks back crying and waving on.
This, I think, is a real bummer.
“Rehab,” Pop groans and stops short to examine the tragedy lain before us. Her fanny is sticking right out there now.
“That,” he begins again, “is one helluva good-looking woman. And that fucka” – he turns to finger shoot the man in his pickup already spitting gravel – “that fucka’s long gone.” He sighs. “Yes sir, that there is one smart sombitch — who ain’t never coming back. Not ever. Not even for that tush.”
“Maybe he will,” I say and shrug. “It’s a nice one.”
“Don’t matter!” he hollers and slams his fist on the roof. “Who gives a mighty squat? I’m out of commission! Get it? MIA, metaphorhisizing. Being born again.”
“Right on, Daddy-O.”
“You don’t know,” he whispers and looks over his shades at me for the first time all morning. “But you will,” he assures me with a wink. “Someday you sure as fuck will.”
“Imagine so,” I relent.
“Sheet. I met your mama in a place just like this,” he says with a look on his face like he’s trying to understand what he’s saying. Trying to grasp the tail-end of the thing. Which is this.
“She’s long-gone, Pop.” Ten years gone.
“Screw it, man, I’m gone,” he laughs and tosses his warped plastic tumbler of watered down gin over the car to watch it bounce twice in the street. “Yeah, zwhat I’m talkin bout!” He says it as if that bounce was an exclamation. Some back-up to his gone-ness. He asks me to light him a stick. I do and hand it over. Then he has to eye me through the smoke and ask, “Why in God’s name you wanna look like a whore, Olive?”
I tell him to call me Olivia now. I don’t know why. It just seems like if I’m on my way to inevitable independence, Olivia sounds right. Anyway, Pop doesn’t have any fashion sense when it comes to women’s attire. I’d gotten dolled up to see him off: My best black mini. Disco-dish. I even rolled my hair the night before. It was big.
“Oh my god,” I say. “Just go already. Go, get cured. I know what I’m doing.” To prove it, I pull the paper out of my tube top. It’s damp with sweat and folded in fours. “Driving permit.”
He’s reaching deep for some sage wisdom. “Don run outa gas and don pick up hitchhikers.”
That’s it? “No shit? What if they look nice?”
“Theyz not nice,” he tells me. “None of ’em. You think you know if one was bad news, sister?”
“I’m almost sixteen now.”
He says, “No. No, I din think so.”
He’ll let me know who needs a fucking ride. Blah, blah.
“Just go already, Pop. I got stuff to do.”
He laughs. Right. Stuff to do. “You got the hundred I give you?”
“Yeah, yeah.” I hold up my smokes. It’s tucked into the cellophane.
He shrugs and turns without a pause to start weaving up the hill toward that woman who’s sitting now, having a full-blown meltdown. Pop, stoic, takes her elbow, heaves her up, brushes that fanny off and covers it gently with her dress. Away they go, arm and arm, quite respectable toward redemption. Then I remember the sign I made for him on the back of a yellow traffic ticket. I yell for him to hold up, and grab the ticket and safety pin from the glove. Tuck the Derringer farther toward the back and close it.
I lift his boots and hop out, running up the hill, practically breaking a heel. I give him his boots and position my note over the red Dickey’s patch. Over his heart. It says, I AM BINGHAM, FATHER TO OLIVIA. HERE TO BE SAVED. I tell him I love him and give the gal a wink. “Make us proud, Bingham! See you in 28, kids.”
I pretend like he’s going off to war and that he’ll come back a hero, without missing an arm or heart or anything like that. But that doesn’t make me feel any better, so I gas it and drive around the block for awhile with the radio fritzing out to Johnny Cash, Ring of Fire — Down, down, down.
I’m just about to make the highway exit toward home or somewhere when I see it. Like destiny. The crack of his ass square above his jeans as he leans into the corroded yellow womb of that rig. I drive by fast, then brake hard. Reverse. He straightens up and spits thick black chaw into the dirt, then grins. That shits in his teeth, but at least it’s not those braces on the boys I’d taken to kissing.
I roll down the window, lower my shades to get a solid look at his face. Which is ugly in a way that’s not quite. Marbled by these scars from a hit of acne a lifetime ago. He looks like a good steak. “You need a ride?”
He slams the hood of that old pick-up. It misses the latch. He lifts it and slams it down again and again and again with all his weight, until it clicks. Pulls up those jeans, straightens out his red ball cap, and leans, boot jacked up on bent fender. “You sure you offering?” he asks, tonguing that wad in his lip. He looks so sure it makes me sweat. “Where you heading, anyway? You know? You gotta clue where you’re heading?”
I point to the exit. He finds something funny about this. I try and come up with an answer for him, but suddenly everything feels real lonely. Even my mind, like I miss my own thoughts. Like I may not even have any of my own. It doesn’t matter anyway; he’s leaning into the window on his elbows now. Like he owns it.
As he gets in, I stare straight ahead at the exit, thinking about Pop’s name tag. I guess I wanted them to know he isn’t alone. In case he forgets. Forgets that I’m out here, 3% unsure.
“Well,” says this prince as he squeezes my knee with a paw that looks like a scarred up purple turnip. “What are the odds?”
And he’s really dumbfounded by his luck. Good or bad, he doesn’t know yet.