This week we have a story from Dallas Hudgens‘s collection, Wake Up, We’re Here. In “Velour,” a good man loses his way after he finds his wife’s sex tape, and has to decide whether he has left his path or started a new one. About Wake Up, We’re Here: In these collected stories of deeply human, flawed men and women in search of connection, consolation and better odds, Dallas Hudgens once again taps into the powerful and resonant view of ordinary lives made less so that has earned him national praise for his novels, “Drive Like Hell” and “Season of Gene.” In a Nation’s Capital fully occupied by the 99%, going about the business of their lives, and in Detroit, Buffalo, Winnipeg, Oxnard and Tampa, life lays down its rhythm in dreams, promises and bills, the truth in neon light through the hazy smoke, and the telltale beat of inconstant hearts, foreclosures, and the everyday rigors of smoking, drinking, working, parenting, cheating, and praying that just one break could make it. America, down on her luck, ready for redemption, has never looked closer than this, or more like us. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
“Leo, this is not you,” Beth said. “I don’t know why you won’t come home.”
They’d known each other forever, had started dating as sophomores in high school and then married when they were both 20. Their daughter, Patsy, was 15 and failing every subject in the 10th grade.
Leo’s apartment had good winter sunlight. He liked having the first drink of the day on the sofa, facing the window in the early afternoon with the History Channel on mute. He was watching a show about the Great Purge when Beth stopped by.
“I’m pretty sure this is me,” he said. “This is it, what you’re looking at.”
“We weren’t even married when it happened,” she said. “Since the day we were married, I swear I’ve been faithful.”
“I’m not mad at you,” he said. “It was an eye opener, I’ll admit that. But it’s given us both a chance to look at ourselves and see that we weren’t who we thought we were. How could that be a bad thing?”
Leo hadn’t started drinking until he left Beth, but when he took up the activity, he pursued it with a purpose and commitment usually reserved for astronauts and presidential candidates. He drank as if he had a point to prove. Over the months they’d been apart, of course, the exact point slipped his mind and became as difficult to grasp as smoke.
Rum and Coke had served as training wheels, but he soon graduated to his mother’s old standby: straight Kentucky Sour Mash in a coffee cup. He learned to like the taste. He learned to hold his urine. He acquired a childlike anticipation of the day’s first drink—a little bit of Christmas every morning of the year.
“What about our daughter?” Beth asked. “Patsy’s worried about you.”
“Come on. We both know Patsy doesn’t give two shits about anyone but herself. We’ve known that since she was 3. We talked about it. Remember?”
Beth stared out the window. Its sill was littered with dead bugs, and the view offered little open space. A doctor’s building and a McDonald’s sat on the opposite side of the street. In the mornings, after he dragged himself from bed, Leo opened the window, even when it was cold outside. The smell of McDonald’s French fries settled his stomach.
Beth turned and looked at Leo. She was still holding her purse.
“She needs us to be together,” she said. “She’ll never learn if we aren’t.”
Leo groaned. He lay on the sofa and covered himself with a velour blanket he’d ordered from Amazon.
“Trust me,” he said. “This will be good for her. Maybe we’ve been the problem all along. Maybe she saw through the bullshit. I don’t know about you, but I’m willing to admit that I’ve been full of shit for the past 20 years or so.”
Beth sighed. “What are you talking about?”
Leo had come to the slow realization that most of his life had been spent taking care of other people. It had started with his mother and younger brother. Deaths, arrests and imminent foreclosures; he had handled them all, never realizing they were only part of a crushing tide that he could never hold back.
“We sold Patsy a . . .”
He couldn’t explain himself. The attempt was like trying to catch a fly in his hand.
“Sold her what?” Beth asked.
“Lies, or something.”
“You’re not making any sense,” Beth said. “You’ve got values. You’re not like this. You’re really scaring me.”
“The Russian people were scared when Stalin died. How do you explain that?”
“I’m really sorry,” she said. “Can’t you forgive me? I thought I had thrown it out years ago.”
Leo closed his eyes. “It’s okay. It’s not about that. I promise, I’m not mad at you.”
Despite his protests, there was no getting around the fact that Leo’s unraveling had begun with the videotape. He and Patsy had been searching the attic for a wig to go with her Halloween costume. She’d settled on attending a friend’s party as a streetwalker after Leo and Beth had vetoed her idea of going as a suicide bomber. Beth had urged Patsy to come up with something that a boy might find attractive: Cleopatra, a cheerleader, a flapper girl. Prostitute was the middle ground Patsy had chosen—spiked heels, torn fishnets and a rubber mini skirt, along with smeared lipstick and track marks that she’d dotted across her arms with a pen.
Leo and Patsy sat amid the attic’s exposed beams and spider webs, tearing open cardboard boxes in search of the final touch: a Marilyn Monroe wig that Beth had worn to a costume party a few years earlier.
Patsy sighed. “It’s the details, Dad. That’s what makes a costume funny.”
“There’s nothing funny about the life of a heroin addict or a prostitute. Most of them probably had terrible childhoods. They might have been abused or exposed to all sorts of things.”
Patsy smiled. “You’re cute when you try.”
She produced the wig from a box and slipped it over her dark hair. The transformation startled Leo. She looked much older. It wasn’t the wig, or the pink tube top, or even the makeup, but the way that her eyes calmly studied him in the dim light. She reached out and patted his shoulder in a playful way.
“You’re just not always convincing,” she said.
Patsy went downstairs and left Leo alone to repack the boxes. Most days, he would have reminded her of everyone’s responsibility to clean up their own messes. But for the moment he felt like this was a mess of his own making.
He repacked the box he’d been rummaging through and then crawled over to the one from which Patsy had pulled the wig. All of the stuff in it belonged to Beth. He found a ragged teddy bear, a memento of the sad childhood from which Leo had thought he could rescue her, a pair of red tap shoes, and ribbons from teenage dance competitions. She seemed to have had a lock on third place back then. A lidless shoebox held matchbooks from their honeymoon in Spain, along with ticket stubs from concerts they’d attended in high school. There was a stack of birthday cards Leo had given her, a dried rose from a high school prom, and beneath it all, at the very bottom of the shoebox, an unlabeled VHS tape.
In Leo’s eyes, Beth had always teemed with hidden possibilities. When she sold the dance studio she’d started, Leo told her it was because she needed stimulation. “I think you’re an idea person,” he said. “You need a new challenge, so you get bored and move on to something else. That’s not a bad thing.”
“I’m just tired of dealing with parents,” she said. “Don’t make me out to be more complicated than I really am.”
“Maybe you’re more complicated than you think.”
“Or maybe you just wish I was.”
The televisions in the living room and bedroom were connected to DVD players. The only tape player left in the house was built into the little television on the kitchen counter. Patsy had already left for her party, and Beth was at the front door handing out candy. In the kitchen, Leo unwrapped a mini Butterfinger and slid the tape into the television.
The video started with the credits of a recorded television show that Leo didn’t recognize. The names of the gaffers and key grips quickly disappeared, replaced by a home-shot video. In it, a much younger Beth was giving a guy in a policeman’s uniform an enthusiastic blow job. She was crouched in front of a sofa in a flower print dress while the guy made faces for the camera and stroked her blonde hair. The video was surprisingly clear. The date it was shot appeared in an upper corner of the screen: April 3, 1994. That spring, Beth’s car had been stolen from the bank parking lot where she worked as a teller. She’d been nineteen at the time.
The cop in the video had kept Beth apprised of “developments,” of which there were none. Leo recognized his square face, even though he’d only met him once.
This had all happened shortly after Beth had told Leo she wasn’t certain they should continue seeing each other, that maybe things had gotten boring. Leo had his own doubts about the relationship. But he also had his little brother, who’d dropped out of the tenth grade to huff butane in their mother’s basement. His mother still bled from the nose, the lymphoma picking up the slack after her last boyfriend had left town. She only had a couple of years to live, and Leo’s brother would die a few more after that, shot by a girlfriend’s ex-husband. But in those days, Leo had felt a pressing responsibility. He wanted his brother to see that not all relationships had to fail, that men didn’t have to hit women, or their children, and that women didn’t have to drink until they bled.
And so he talked Beth into staying together. He took her to dinner and said that whatever doubts each of them might have, there was no denying the fact that they shared the same values. They both believed in family and love—love above all else. And those were the things that kept people together.
Beth cried. She reached across the table and held his hand. “I’m so lucky to have you,” she said. They lay in bed that night talking about houses and children and future Thanksgivings. The next day, Beth’s car was stolen.
Leo paused the video. His response mystified him. He felt nothing other than a dully-satisfied curiosity, as if he’d just watched a show about Cortés’s later days. Someone had sailed into a harbor he’d never heard of and wreaked havoc—just a story on a small screen with a bunch of green bananas lying nearby. When he heard the Pyrex bowl shatter behind him, he turned and saw Beth standing in the kitchen doorway, candy bars at her feet. She was staring at the frozen image on the television screen.
“Where did you get that?”
Leo calmly considered the picture.
“If you’d worn a wig,” he said, “I might not have known it was you.”
Even as he devoted himself to drinking, Leo still received his monthly disbursement from Stairs Furniture, where he’d started working when he was 16. Mr. Stairs had dealt with money problems in recent years due to a cash-skimming son-in-law. He eventually lost his store and filed for bankruptcy, but Leo had come to the rescue, helping Stairs set up an online furniture business that dealt directly with manufacturers, cutting costs to the consumers while allowing them to create their own customized sofas and chairs from home. Stairs made Leo a 49% partner in the deal. The business had turned both of them into wealthy men.
Leo rarely had to leave the apartment. He transferred money into Beth’s account so she could pay bills and buy things for Patsy. He ordered a new wardrobe over the Internet and dressed every day in gray Dickies work pants and black t-shirts. He procured his groceries and liquor online as well. He even bought a Tama Imperialstar drum kit with a double bass drum off Ebay. He’d given up playing in the ninth grade when his stepfather had sold his kit for rent money.
He outfitted the drums with practice pads and played them in the middle of the apartment’s living room. Neighbors banged on their walls and ceilings. One of them called the cops. Another left a note on his door: I live upstairs. My band needs a drummer.
Soon, Leo was spending a couple of nights a month playing Slayer and Metallica covers in dive bars with narrow staircases that led to small stages. The other band members were younger than Leo, but they liked the savagery of his playing and respected the fact that he could drink every one of them under the table. And no matter how drunk he might be, Leo was always on time and equipped with notes for each song in the set, written on his left arm.
The band’s lead singer, Rich, was the one who had left the note on his door. He told Leo with admiration, “You are the angriest motherfucker on the face of the earth.”
The only other occasion that got Leo out of the apartment was when Mr. Stairs called and needed a favor. They usually involved Cupcake, the old man’s beloved Westy. Stairs had diabetes and couldn’t see well enough to drive any more, and Leo still felt an obligation to the old man who’d signed his first paycheck.
Stairs told Leo that he was worried about him.
“I’ve never been happier,” Leo said.
“Well, you look like hell,” the older man said.
They were sitting in Stairs’s living room after Cupcake’s visit to the groomer. Stairs had bought a log cabin and property, which included a stocked fishing pond, after his daughter gave birth to a son. He wanted the child to be his fishing buddy. But then there was the mess with his son-in-law, who Stairs prosecuted and saw locked away for eighteen months. After that, his daughter died from pancreatic cancer, and the grandson went to live with his father’s parents. They refused to let Stairs see the child, and the fishing pond was soon overtaken by algae and fungus. The green, foamy surface had become littered with dead large mouths and blue gills.
“I just needed some time off,” Leo said.
Leo had a plateful of Rice Krispies treats in his lap. They were Cupcake’s favorite snack. Leo usually made a batch of them when he was at the cabin.
“Everything,” Leo said.
Cupcake sat at Leo’s feet, looking embarrassed by the blue kerchief the groomer had tied around his neck.
“Beth called me,” Stairs said.
“I’m sorry about that.”
The TV played silently, a travel show about golfing in Scotland.
“She told me she did something before you got married, something that hurt you.”
Leo had grown tired of Cupcake’s expectant gaze. He broke off a sticky piece of the Rice Krispies treats and flung it across the room and into the kitchen. The dog scampered after it.
“She thinks it’s all about that,” Leo said. “But it’s not, really.”
“I guess betrayal is betrayal,” Stairs said. “It doesn’t matter if you weren’t married when it happened.”
“I betrayed Beth long before that. I made her believe I was somebody else. What she did only lasted a few minutes. What I’ve done has been going on for years.”
Cupcake came back and hopped up in the older man’s lap. “So, you think this is who you really are?” Stairs asked. “A man with liquor on his breath at 10 in the morning?”
Leo watched the golfers, bundled in sweaters, hiking over the foggy Scottish berms. A strong wind blew off the ocean and bent the sea grass flat. The scene looked as foreign as the moon to Leo.
“I’ve always felt like there was another me,” he said. “A real me. The person I was supposed to be. I used to imagine what he would eat, what he would wear, where he would live, what he would drink. And now I’m doing all that, and it feels like the most natural thing in the world.”
Stairs scratched behind both of Cupcake’s ears while the little dog nuzzled his neck and purred like a cat.
“You don’t have to end up like your mama and your brother.”
“I’m not better than them,” Leo said. “I don’t deserve better.”
“You’re a good person. Don’t ever forget who you really are.”
“I used to play a good person,” Leo said. “I’m afraid I’ve been typecast.”
Patsy came to the apartment on a Friday to sleep over. The visit had been Beth’s idea.
“We don’t have much to say to each other any more,” Leo told Beth.
“So, take her to a movie. Just be with her. You don’t have to talk.”
Leo ordered Chinese food, and he and Patsy ate in the living room. Patsy texted friends between bites while Leo watched a show about the real Robin Hood. It turned out the good-hearted thief had likely never existed. Robin Hood had merely been a term for garden-variety criminals of the day.
Leo broke down his drum kit and packed it in the car while Patsy listened to her iPod and browsed the Internet on his laptop. When he had finished packing, Leo walked back upstairs and sat in the folding chair across from the sofa. He carefully wrapped tape around his index and middle fingers. Patsy looked up with a puzzled expression and pulled off her headphones.
“What are you doing?”
“I’ve got a gig tonight.”
Patsy didn’t seem to understand.
“I’ve been playing in a band.”
“A band. You know, music.”
She shook her head. “When did this happen?”
“A guy left a note on my door. He heard me playing.”
Patsy set the laptop on the table and leaned back into the sofa. She was wearing red rain boots, a purple scarf, and a floppy hat. Leo’s velour blanket lay across the back of the sofa, and Patsy pulled it down and wrapped it around her shoulders.
“Soft blanket, huh?” he said.
Patsy sniffed a corner of it and nodded. She looked at his taped fingers, then his face. He hadn’t shaved in a week, and his hair had gotten longer since he’d moved out.
“The thing I like about you,” she said, “is that I can’t figure you out at all.”
“You think that’s a good thing?” he asked.
She shrugged. “Mom is mom. She wants everyone to love her, but then she wants everyone to go away and leave her alone. And people at school, they just bore me.”
“Boring is underrated,” he said.
Patsy absentmindedly rubbed a corner of the brown blanket against her cheek. She stopped and held the blanket away from her face. “This blanket is boring.”
“I love that blanket,” Leo said.
She asked if she could go with him, but he told her they were playing a 21-and-over bar.
“Is it a dump?” she asked.
“It’s a fire trap,” Leo said. “And the sound man is on parole for manslaughter.”
Patsy smiled. “Sounds cool.”
“It is,” Leo said.
His band went on early that night, so he was finished and packed by midnight. He called Patsy from the bar to ask if she wanted him to pick up a pizza. She didn’t answer, but he got the pizza anyway, double cheese for Patsy, and brought it home with him.
The television was tuned to a show about a fashion designer. A model wore a hat that looked like a birdcage, and Patsy lay asleep on the sofa, still wearing her red rain boots. She clutched the cell phone in her hand. It buzzed with an unread text, but Patsy didn’t wake up. Leo touched her shoulder and told her he had a pizza. As he set down the box on the kitchen counter, he noticed the smell: a combination of vomit and shit. He followed the odor to the bathroom and saw a towel stuffed in the trash can. He lifted the vomit-soaked towel and gagged at the smell. Beneath the towel lay an empty bottle of Knob Creek Bourbon.
By the time Beth arrived at the hospital, Patsy had gotten an IV of fluids and been discharged. She was sitting on the curb beside Leo, drinking a Coke. Beth ran up to them with her overcoat pulled tight around her nightgown.
Leo stood up and met her. “She said the cold air feels good.”
Patsy was looking at the ground, sipping from the can of Coke. The brown blanket was draped over her shoulders. Leo had wrapped it around her before he carried her to the car.
Beth sighed and turned away from Patsy. “Jesus, where were you?”
“I had an obligation,” Leo said. “I was only gone for a few hours.”
Beth stared at him. “So, you’re doing obligations on a limited basis.”
Leo understood what she meant, but he couldn’t well explain that the band asked nothing of him other than to be on time and to play the songs well. And that was all that he wanted from them. It was as pure a relationship as he had ever experienced.
“It’s not the first time she’s done this,” Beth said. “She got drunk at a friend’s house a few months ago. She threw up on their sofa. The mother made me pay the cleaning bill.”
Leo looked at their daughter, her head bobbing above the soda can.
“She’s hard to figure out,” he said.
“It frightens you, doesn’t it?”
“That she’ll be like your brother, or your mother.”
The cool air touched his bones and made him shiver. He crossed his arms and looked at the ground. “You can’t save the people you love. It took me a long time to learn that.”
“But you still worry, don’t you?”
“Honestly,” he said, “I think I’ve reached a point where I’m just all worried out.”
Leo was already packed for a gig when he got the news that he’d been fired from the band. Rich delivered the message in a text: My brother moved back to town. He’s gonna play drums with us. Sorry.
Leo left the drums in the back of his car. Someone busted out the back windshield on the third night and stole them. He didn’t report the theft. He bought a putter at the sporting goods store and putted balls into a cup on the apartment’s dirty, gray carpet. After a few days, he started taking full swings, getting under the balls and launching them into the wall. He took out chunks of plaster, and the neighbors banged on the walls again.
Leo couldn’t understand why he wasn’t more worried about Patsy. When he passed out, he didn’t dream of her but of his little brother, Stevie. He drank more, but the dreams only became more vivid. Stevie was always 9, wearing his Michael Jordan jersey with his skinny arms hanging at his sides. Stevie at his best, at his most vulnerable, the fall guy in any situation that wound up disappointing their stepfather. Leo never dreamed of grown-up Stevie, dirty sweatshirt Stevie, Spaghetti-Os Stevie, the Stevie who stole all of his record albums and sold them to buy drugs.
Leo went online and ordered Patsy a blanket like his own, but in bright red. For some reason, he typed in his mother’s old address for shipping, and the blanket got lost in the mail. He ordered the blanket again and had it sent to Patsy. He worried it might not arrive, so he ordered it again in orange, and then again in pink.
Mr. Stairs called on a Tuesday and asked Leo to pick up eye drops for Cupcake. A snow storm had shut down the city, and Leo had a full day of drinking under his belt. He wrote down the veterinarian’s address and hit the icy roads. Wind whistled through the car’s broken rear windshield, and music played on the speakers, a song about fate and blue moons. Leo was doing 60 in a 35-mph zone when the cop turned on the flashers.
The policeman was an asshole from the start. He marched up to Leo’s car in his shiny, wet boots and started screaming. Leo had already gotten out of the car and retrieved his license and insurance.
“Jesus Christ. Are you in a hurry to kill somebody?”
Leo shrugged and offered his documents. The officer slapped them out of his hand.
“Pick them up,” the cop said.
Wet snow was falling. The side of the road was slushy and muddy, and Leo never even looked down at his license. He head butted the cop and followed with a punch to the throat. The officer croaked and went down on his knees. Leo managed to kick him in the face before the cop gathered himself and pulled out the taser.
Leo dried out in the county jail. He faced an 18-month sentence for assaulting the officer, but his attorney worked out a six-month plea bargain that included four weeks in a treatment facility for alcohol abuse. He would finish things up with two months in a halfway house.
His mind cleared at the treatment place, and he realized there had never been a point to prove. Without the bourbon and drums and golf balls, the new Leo had left town. The real Leo was left with his old self, a person for whom he had little interest, care, or respect.
In meetings, he drummed his thumbs on his legs, or slept in the back of the room. The counselors grew frustrated, even threatening to send him to the county jail to finish his time. The food was marginally better in rehab, so he made an effort to hang on. One counselor told him that if he didn’t believe in anything, he should just try to think of one reason to stay sober and go from there.
One night, Leo had a dream about Stairs’s pond. He was trapped under the algae, struggling to breathe, fighting to break the surface. The dead fish were blocking his path. They came to life and swarmed him, pushing him down to the bottom. He could still feel the pressure on his chest when he woke up, a pain darting across his jaw and down his neck. He gasped for breath, tried to call out for help. He finally fell out of bed and onto the cold, tile floor. He wanted something warm to wrap around him.
The doctors said it had been a mild heart attack. Afterward, Leo didn’t fear death so much as having another cardiac arrest. He thought about the counselor’s advice—one reason to stay sober. He went into the computer room and ordered another blanket for Patsy. He had forgotten about the earlier ones.
His attorney managed to have his sentence reduced to probation. He finished the four weeks in treatment and went to the halfway house. It was from there that he called Beth.
“Of course, you can see Patsy. Why don’t you just come home when all of this is over? You sound like yourself again.”
“No, I’m not coming back,” he said. “But I do want to apologize. I shouldn’t have asked you to marry me. You deserved to be loved. And the only thing I loved was the thought of me being better than everyone else.”
Beth swore again that she’d thought the videotape had been thrown out years ago. It had never meant anything to her.
“I always admired you,” she said. “You were like a man from the first time I met you. You were different and more responsible. I never imagined myself being with anyone else.”
He knew that he’d never truly been any of those things. Why hadn’t she seen it? He might as well have worn a kilt, carried a golf club, and called himself a Scottish Highlander for twenty years. “Don’t blame yourself,” he said. “Betrayal is not betrayal.”
Leo hung up the phone. He wanted a drink. He wanted to turn up a bottle of whiskey and kick down a door. But all of the doors had been blocked by fine, heavy pieces of furniture. So, he walked outside to the picnic table and bummed a cigarette from a young woman named Olive who had epileptic seizures. She liked to talk in meetings, telling stories about her crystal meth adventures. Leo sensed that she missed those days. She was thin and twitchy, and she mumbled and often talked to the floor.
They sat across from each other beneath a floodlight. The two of them had never talked before, and neither said anything now. Suddenly, though, Olive reached out and touched the top of Leo’s hand. The gesture startled him, but he soon relaxed beneath her warm touch. It had been a long time since he’d felt another person’s skin.
“I dreamed that you healed me,” she said.
“I’m not a doctor.”
She smiled. “That doesn’t matter.”
He let her hold his hand a while longer, not because he believed he could heal anything but because her hand felt good on his. And after they had gone back inside, Olive went to the TV room and had another seizure. Leo sat on the floor beside her and held her hand again until it was over.
Leo took a cab to the house to meet Patsy. His heart flapped like a sick bird in the grass, a cat waiting nearby. They walked to a playground at the top of a hill. It looked over the football field of the local high school.
Patsy sat in a swing, and Leo followed her lead, settling into the one beside her. The sun felt warm for February, but a big walnut tree blocked most of the rays. Leo was out of breath from the walk.
“Are you okay?” Patsy asked.
“Yeah, it’s just the after effects. Plus, I started smoking after the heart attack.”
“That probably wasn’t a good idea,” she said.
Leo shrugged. “A man needs a vice, I guess.”
“What’s with all the blankets?” she asked.
Leo gave her a puzzled look, and she explained that he had sent her a half dozen blankets over the past several months.
“I was having some memory problems there for a while. Sorry about that.”
“I like the orange one.”
Leo smiled. “I don’t even remember an orange one.”
He lit a cigarette, blew out the match, and stuck it inside his pants pocket.
“So, how’s your band?” she asked.
The questions surprised Leo. Patsy rarely seemed curious about anything that didn’t directly affect her.
“I got replaced,” he said. “The lead singer’s brother moved back in town.”
“It’s okay. I was getting tired of the songs.”
Leo watched a couple of kids shooting baskets on the park’s lone hoop. He could feel Patsy staring at him.
“Your hair is really long,” she said.
Leo didn’t answer. The ballplayers had reminded him of his little brother, Stevie, of how he used to take Stevie to the park when he was younger and let him win at basketball. Stevie always wore his Bulls jersey and a sweatband just below his elbow like Michael Jordan. When he wore them to eighth-grade basketball tryouts, a few of the kids laughed at him. And then, when he touched the ball for the first time, an even smaller boy swooped in and stole the ball from him.
It went downhill from there—missed layups, air-mailed free throws, dribbling the ball off his foot. Leo had driven Stevie to the tryouts and sat in the stands watching the train wreck, understanding he’d done his brother no favors by letting him win or telling him the jersey and wristband were cool. Stevie hid in his closet when it was time to leave for the second day of tryouts. Their stepfather dragged him out by the wrist and made him go. Stevie never wore the jersey or sweatband again.
Leo tried to think of something to say. Patsy had pulled her dark hair back into a ponytail. Her neck was long and fragile, a soft note from an instrument that touched his skin.
“Where’s your phone?” he asked.
“Mom wouldn’t let me bring it. She thought I’d text the whole time.”
Leo took a draw on the cigarette and held the smoke in his chest. He felt warmth and pain at the same time.
“Did I ever tell you I had a little brother?”
“I heard you and mom talking one time. She told me not to ask you about him.”
“He would have liked your Halloween costume,” Leo said.
“Well, it was a good costume,” she said.
Leo nodded. “I know.”
A breeze shook the leaves of the big tree, and a walnut fell, skittering on the sliding board. Patsy hadn’t stopped watching Leo since they’d first sat down on the swings. The concern on her face was something he’d never seen before. But she wore it easily, like her red rain boots and pink sweater.
“We should probably get back to the house,” he said. “Mom told me you’re taking a drawing class this afternoon.”
“That was her idea,” she said. “It’s not like I want to be an artist.”
Patsy had enjoyed drawing from the time that she could first hold a crayon. She’d drawn on the walls as a toddler and in her school notebooks as she got older. Her sketches had always been one-dimensional and out of proportion. No two eyes were ever the same size. But she loved details; veins on an eyeball or dirt beneath a fingernail. Shoelaces and gum wrappers and bird shit on a sidewalk. She crowded the paper with minutia.
Leo had a bad feeling about the drawing class. But he made a choice. A tall kid drained a jump shot on the basketball hoop, and Leo walked through an old, familiar doorway.
“You’d be a good artist,” he said. “I mean, if that’s what you want to do.”
He ground his cigarette in the dirt and pushed himself up from the swing. He felt a little light-headed and had to brace himself on the aluminum support. Patsy jumped up and stood close, at the ready in case he toppled over.
After a moment, he felt steadier on his feet. He tried to reassure Patsy. “I’m okay,” he said.
His daughter offered her hand, and he took it without hesitation. It was a warm little bun. They started back to the house together. After they’d crossed the street, Patsy brought up his brush with the legal system.
“So, you really don’t have a driver’s license?”
Leo shook his head.
“For how long?”
“18 months,” he said.
Patsy thought about it for a few steps. “I’ll have my license in seven months.”
“That’s a good math question,” he said. “If Patsy’s father’s license is suspended for 18 months, and Patsy gets her license in seven months, then how long will Patsy have to drive her father to his meetings with his probation officer?”
Patsy didn’t seem to understand the joke. Math had never been her strong suit. In his mind, he could see her sitting at an easel in drawing class, sketching scenes of a man beating the shit out of a cop. Cigarette butts in the melting snow, potholes in the pavement, a busted rear windshield, blood and sand and rusted lug nuts. A bad driver’s license photo lay amid it all.
They talked easily for a while, Patsy airing grievances about kids at her school, and Leo laughing at her summations of certain idiots she had to deal with on a daily basis. In the past, he would have told her it wasn’t nice to say things like that about people, that she should try to be kind to everyone and understand that they might be going through difficult things in their life. But now he gave himself the chance to just enjoy her company.
The walking and talking finally caught up to Leo, and he had to pause at a telephone pole to catch his breath. His hands shook, and his knees felt as weak as eyelids.
Patsy stopped and waited, a concerned look on her face. Leo felt something shudder inside, but he understood that it wasn’t his heart. Still, he couldn’t catch his breath. He let go of Patsy’s hand and leaned against the pole. Two cars passed in a hurry. The wind blew, but the clouds above stood still.
“You can go ahead,” he told her.
She looked up warily and shook her head.
He waved his hand. “It’s okay. I’m sure.”
She fixed her eyes on his shoes. He was wearing a new pair of green Chuck Taylors. He’d been trying to break from the gray and black wardrobe.
“You should get going,” he said.
She looked at her watch, then glanced down the street as if measuring the distance to the house.
“I could tell mom to come pick you up in the car.”
He smiled. “Don’t worry. Don’t worry about anything.”
“It’s the first class,” she said. “I probably shouldn’t be late.”
“You’re right,” he said. “You should go.”
“We’d probably have time to pick you up on the way. Mom could drop you off at your place.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “I’ll call a cab from my cell phone.
“Do you have money?” she asked.
He smiled. “Yeah, I’ve got money.”
“Do you need any kind of medicine?”
“I’ve got medicine,” he said.
She backed away from him, reluctantly at first.
“Are you sure?”
He smiled and waved her on. And then she turned and broke into a full run, shrinking with each stride, her hair swinging wildly behind her, moving through different lines of light, each a lie or broken promise that begged her attention. Leo watched to make sure that she kept going, that she was safe. His heart kept a steady beat—no anger—and the cool, afternoon air filled his lungs and settled into a warm corner of his chest. Patsy looked back once, and then again. Leo let go of the telephone pole and waved to her. She waved back and kept running. He lit a cigarette and watched her as long as he could.